SPRINGFIELD — The movement to improve conditions for the 2,500 women housed in Illinois' two female prisons is advancing with passage of a House bill that would create a women's services division in the Department of Corrections to oversee the unique needs of women, most of whom were abused before they arrived at the prison door.
The Women's Correctional Services Division would provide senior level oversight of programs at the Decatur and Logan County correctional centers and the parole division that supervises women after prison.
Deanne Benos, a former assistant director of IDOC who later founded the Women's Justice Initiative, said the legislation that now moves to the Senate would help the prison system address issues outlined in the Gender Informed Practice Assessment (GIPA), a study conducted last year of the Logan County prison.
"This law will be a model. Illinois will be the first in the country to statutorily define gender responsive practices," said Benos, who coordinated the project with IDOC Women & Family Services Coordinator Margaret Burke.
The 18-member consulting team spent four days talking with staff and inmates before releasing its assessment in November 2016.
Underscoring the need to examine the unmet needs of female inmates is the 767 percent growth rate of women in Illinois prisons between 1980 and 2014, a rate that exceeds the 700 percent national growth rate for the period. Minority women across the country continue to be disproportionately impacted by incarceration.
The Logan assessment offers a snapshot of the issues facing the complex population.
The 1,835 women at the facility outside Lincoln are mothers of a total of 3,700 children, and about 44 percent of the women do not have a high school or GED diploma.
About 41 percent, or an estimated 770, have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Fifty-eight percent of women in IDOC are on a mental health caseload compared with 25 percent of their male counterparts, according to the GIPA.
The GIPA notes that most women have a history of physical and sexual abuse — "conditions at risk of being dangerously triggered, misunderstood and mismanaged in a prison." Without adequate mental health services, women become less stable and are released into the community in worse shape than when they entered the system.
The assessment cited culture and leadership changes needed at Logan. A hastily arranged transition of Logan in 2013 from a male to female facility housing women previously held at the Dwight and Lincoln correctional centers left the prison without properly trained staff and inconsistent policies, said the GIPA.
"Numerous reports from both staff and women suggest that a poorly planned, rushed and chaotic transition of the women from Dwight/Lincoln to Logan set the tone for the culture that exists at Logan today," said the report.
The recommendations for women-centered policies are part of an ongoing collaboration between IDOC and advocates for change, said Benos.
"It's going to be a long haul. So far it's producing positive results," starting with an initial round of staff training, said Benos.
The John Howard Association recently released results of its Logan survey that includes perceptions from staff and inmates that the prison is not a safe place to live and work. About 66 percent of inmates opined that the disciplinary process is unfair, and about 70 percent were dissatisfied with the prison's health care services.
On the issue of safety, 44 percent of inmates said they do not feel safe, compared to 31 who did not express safety concerns and another 25 percent who had no opinion. Almost half of Logan's staff responded that they do not feel the prison is a safe work environment, with 30 percent having an opposing view and 20 percent expressing a neutral view.
Jennifer Vollen Katz, executive director of the Chicago-based prison monitoring group, said the survey is part of a pilot program to increase feedback from staff and inmates in Illinois. Katz said data from the survey and GIPA point to what has been known for a long time: "The incarceration experience is simply different for women than men."