Last month, the Illinois Corrections Department grabbed headlines when a report revealed that one of its prisons issued inmates only two pairs of underwear that they were forced to re-wear for several days at a time. Although the hygiene concerns were striking, the underwear crisis barely scratched the surface of a nationwide struggle to fund state prisons.
Overcrowding and underfunding have plagued state corrections facilities for years, but falling state revenues have led to drastic shortages in one of the least visible communities subject to public funding.
The Illinois study, released by the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog, found that the state prison in Taylorville could not afford adequate clothing. The group’s executive director, John Maki, said that the situation is not uncommon.
“The problem is system-wide,” he said. “You name it, there’s not one thing they have enough of. That’s frightening.”
Maki said that dire budget conditions in Illinois exacerbated the problem but that prison systems across the country are overburdened and underfunded.
Inmate populations in all types of corrections facilities have grown in recent years. The boom has been particularly striking in state prisons. A 2010 study by the Pew Center on the States found that the number of inmates in state facilities climbed every year in the three decades between 1978 and 2008.
In 2010, state prisons housed more than 1.4 million, just a 0.3 percent decline from a record reached in 2008.
State prison budgets have historically been a tricky issue, Maki said. Elected officials at every level are expected to take a strong stand on crime, and incarceration numbers can often be the easiest way to prove that dedication. The numbers game, paired with mandatory minimum sentences for drug and other offenders, led to the sharp but steady climb in inmate populations.
Prison budgets largely stayed the same, however. And then the financial crisis hit. State revenues shrank, and governors and legislatures were forced to decide where to make the cuts necessary to keep states afloat.
“When teachers are getting laid off, roads aren’t being fixed, and people who haven’t broken the law are having trouble finding jobs, talking about the needs of prisoners is a hard thing to do,” Maki said.
And the problem is hardly unique to Illinois. Prison budgets in states from California to New York and Iowa to Ohio suffered huge cutbacks in recent years. The problem has become so drastic that the Association of State Correctional Administrators ranked budget cuts ITS No. 1 concern in 2010—well above serving mentally ill inmates and finding housing for released sex offenders.
Even states with healthy budgets are feeling the pinch.
In Iowa, the fiscal fight is playing out in an increasingly familiar fashion—state employee unions are at war with the state’s Republican governor over program funding.
Earlier this month, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in Iowa took aim at plans to further reduce the number of corrections officers in the state’s prisons. Danny Homan, president of the Iowa AFSCME Council, has been leading the charge against a budget proposal that he said would exacerbate unsafe conditions for prisoners and staffers alike.
“Our biggest concern is that we believe that as a system we are several hundred correctional officers under what we need to safely operate the prisons,” Homan said. “I estimate that we are around 25 percent over capacity, if not more, but we are probably about 100 to 200 officers down—and that’s just an estimate.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has approved funding for 40 new corrections officers in the 2012 budget. However, those officers are limited to just a few of the state facilities, leaving many prisons still heavily understaffed, Homan said.
Several prison watchdogs in Iowa have argued that the 40 new positions still leave dozens of guard jobs unfilled across the state. As a result, Homan said he has received complaints of breaks being canceled, high turnover among officers, and increasing violence in the prison population.
Homan said he is baffled by the problems because unlike Illinois, Iowa has money to spare. Iowa ended the fiscal year with a $480 million surplus, in addition to a “rainy day fund.”
The biggest worry among watchdog groups, unions, and corrections officials alike is that an ongoing budget crisis could feed a cycle of recidivism. Maki argued that studies have shown that inmates are far more likely to return to crime if they do not receive adequate attention while incarcerated.
“Despair is contagious, and about half of people who go to prison come back,” Maki said. “At a certain point, the prison system just can’t take any more. At some point, we’re just going to warehouse prisoners; they’re not going to have access to learn anything.”
This article appears in the July 25, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.