Not long ago, it seemed every time a different type of crime started making the news, members of the Illinois General Assembly would rush to increase the penalty for that offense. But today — with prisons stuffed beyond capacity and state finances ailing — lawmakers have begun taking a more deliberate approach. Brian Mackey reports on a criminal sentencing culture change in the Illinois General Assembly.

WUIS/Illinois Issues

When a September meeting of one of Illinois’ many obscure government oversight commissions turned into a discussion about the proper seasoning blend for making hot dogs, it served as yet another reminder that there are problems with the state’s revamped rules for purchasing goods and services.

Sandi and Jesse Jackson Jr. at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver
WUIS/Illinois Issues

His predecessor in the U.S. House, Mel Reynolds, went to jail in the mid-’90s, being convicted of bank fraud and having sex with a 16-year-old girl. But Jesse Jackson Jr. was the first son of a candidate for president from Illinois to serve time in prison.

In late October, Jackson Jr. reported to a North Carolina prison camp, where he was expected to serve until December 2015. It was the end of what had been a spectacular rise and a hard fall. He was still trying to come up with the cash to cover his restitution.


A Republican candidate for governor is once again calling for Illinois to change the way it manages major facilities, like prisons and developmental centers. That includes how the state closes such facilities.

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford says past attempts to close prisons and other big state institutions have been haphazard. He says this has been going on for years, back at least to the administrations of former governors Ryan and Blagojevich. But it's still happening, as with this year's closure of the women's prison in Dwight.


More and more prisoners in Illinois are being served brunch, eating two meals a day instead of three. Prison officials say it's actually better for many inmates.

Feeding prisoners is a lot of work — not only cooking and cleaning up, but moving inmates from cells or dorms over to the mess hall.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer says at some prisons, breakfast is served at 4 a.m., which means moving inmates in the dark.

Gov. Pat Quinn has called for the closing of Tamms Correctional Center.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Gray, bleak and desensitizing. Hope-draining and soul-crushing. That is how some who have entered the walls of the state’s super-maximum-security prison in Tamms describe it. 

“The doors are like a rust-red color with thousands of perforated holes. And you look outside, and you don’t see nothing but a gray wall,” says Brian Nelson, a former Tamms inmate. “My biggest fear is that this is all happening in my head, and I am going to wake up and I’m in that cell. And that scares the s--- out of me.” Nelson has been paroled and now works as a paralegal in Chicago. 

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The litany was depressingly familiar: overcrowded, understaffed, with limited access to medical and psychiatric treatment, rehabilitative services, education and jobs for inmates.

Female inmates at the Decatur Correctional Center in August receive certificates from Richland Community College
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Lori Williams spent 18 months in a state prison on a drug conviction. But the 49-year-old Macon County resident says her time behind bars in the late 1990s didn’t go to waste.

While serving her sentence at the Decatur Correctional Center, Williams set her sights on emerging from this dark period by taking advantage of the educational programs offered at the all-female facility.

Bethany Jaeger
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Gov. Pat Quinn plans to lay off as many as 1,000 prison workers at the same time a recent state audit reveals that staffing shortages within the Illinois Department of Corrections contributed to mounting overtime costs.

The price of workers putting in extra hours spiked from $19.2 million to $37 million in fiscal years 2007 to 2008. 

Women in Prison
WUIS/Illinois Issues

"It's not enough to train somebody to be a good  inmate,'' she says. "You must translate those skills into them becoming a model citizen."

More than 2,200 women in Illinois' prison system left children at home last year while they served time. That's about 80 percent of the female prison population, most of which comes from the Chicago area. While relatives care for the kids, many of those moms are learning to parent by phone, by letter or by teleconference.

Prisons are the economy in Vienna. Just ask Paul Gage. 

At age 82, he’s been mayor of that southern Illinois community of 1,500 for 35 years and is himself a former lieutenant at the nearby Vienna Correctional Center. “We don’t have any other industry,” he says. “They are good jobs at the prisons. People count on retiring from there. They buy cars and they buy houses.”

Aaron Chambers
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Illinois has packed away the prisoners. So has the rest of the nation. 

Since 1978, this state has almost quadrupled the rate at which criminal offenders are incarcerated. But that's consistent with other states for the time period, one in which crime rates boomed and legislators responded with tougher penalties for criminals. 

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Illinois is building another maximum security prison.

This economic development plum will go to Grayville, a tiny town on a bend in the Wabash River at the southeastern edge of the state. And who can blame them for wanting it? Officials say the $140 million project, slated to be completed in early 2005, will generate 300 construction jobs beginning next year. Another 761 workers will be needed to run the place. That's a lot of jobs in a poor region of the state.

Patrick E. Gauen
WUIS/Illinois Issues

"What do I do now?" Rodney Woidtke's lawyer heard his client's first words as a free man and had to explain that "not guilty" meant he would not be going back to prison.

It was a triumph for Ron Jenkins, who took the murder retrial on a token retainer. It was a triumph for Woidtke, a paranoid schizophrenic who began denying the crime after first confessing three times. It may even be a triumph for the court system of St. Clair County, which at times seemed more determined to blame Woidtke than to make sure of his guilt. 

Medical Problems Reported by State Inmates
2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, based on a 1997 survey

Picture a pristine waiting room with two patients lying quietly on cots. Next door, a doctor checks someone who has a sore throat, while a nurse treats a man who complains of stomach pains. Just down the hall, patients file in and out of a dentist's chair for regular checkups.