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A SHORT HISTORY OF ILLINOIS CORRECTIONS

Public flogging, the pillory for imprisonment, or a short time in county jails comprised the earliest forms of punishment for public offenders after Illinois was chartered in 1818 as the nation’s 21st state.  The state’s few jails consisted of the most part of rude log dwellings. 

According to a historian writing of the time, “This prison was ordered to be build of hewn timber, 12 inches square and was considered, in those pioneer times, quite a terror to all who dared trample upon the majesty of the law.”

The author was referring to the jail erected in 1818 in Crawford County.  Illinois county records reveal that the oldest jail was built five years earlier in Gallatin County.  Hans W. Mattick and Ronald P. Sweet, authors of Illinois Jails, have described well the procedure for booking prisoners in those rustic structures:

In those days, a typical prisoner would have entered a two-story log structure with three or four narrow, barred windows through the only door, located on the second floor.  If he was considered dangerous, he would have been let down to the ground floor on a ladder placed through a hole in the ceiling and later withdrawn.  He shared his quarters with the debtors, the insane, the inebriate and other “evil doers.”  Generally, no heat was provided and a bucket served his sanitary needs. 

It was recognized by thinking men at the time that the prevalent forms of punishment needed changing.  But the public’s apathy to any increase in taxation prevented adoption of any other policy until 1827.  During that year, the General Assembly decided that certain saline lands grated the state by the federal government for the use and support of salt works be sold, if permission could be obtained from Congress.  Permission was granted and on agreement within the state, the western portion of Illinois allotted its half of the funds to the building of a penitentiary at Alton.  The eastern half of the state took its portion and used the money for other needed public improvements.

The funds allotted for construction were inadequate, however, and in 1831, the General Assembly appropriated an additional $10,000 from the state treasury. 

Interestingly, in 1831, the state’s criminal code was revised, making public whipping and exposure in the pillory illegal forms of punishment.  Instead, public offenders were now to be confined in the Alton penitentiary (whipping, however, apparently did not entirely disappear from use, for in 1845, a report from the Alton prison reveals the lashing of an offender with a rawhide upon his naked back).

Even though the law was changed, public approval of the new system of punishment was slow in coming.  The early settlers seemed to resent the denial of one of their cherished forms of popular amusement—public flogging and the pillory.

The Alton institution received its first inmates in 1833.  The prison’s 24 cells contained beds of straw with coverings of blankets and buffalo robes.  Management from 1838 to the penitentiary’s close was in the hands of a “lessee,” to whom the state leased the physical property and its men for a fixed sum.  The lessee, in turn, furnished supplies, handled all the products of convict labor, employed guards and exercised the general powers of the warden. 

It soon became apparent that the site for the prison was ill-chosen.  The buildings had been erected on the side of a steep slope extending down to the Mississippi River and whenever it rained, deep gullies were cut through the yard, undermining the facility’s walls.  Constant outlays for repairs were causing a severe drain on the state treasury.

Addressing the General Assembly in February 1847, Dorothea L. Dix was severely critical of Illinois’ treatment of prisoners and of the Alton penitentiary.  Having made a study of the state’s care or lack of it, she advised the legislators to stop wasting further funds on the Alton institution, to abandon it and build another elsewhere.  She pointed out, among other faults, that the prison hospital was located in a damp, unventilated cellar; that there were not chapel, chaplain, or moral and religious instructors; no provisions for destitute discharged convicts, whose own clothing was often lost or rotted by the end of their terms; that there were no bathing facilities; that the dining room had neither flagging nor flooring, but a dirt floor, which could not be washed; and that this was the only prison in the United States at the time in which the inmates had to stand while eating their meals.

The prison population grew rapidly.  Writing in 1854, Thomas Ford said, “In the course of 15 years of experience under the new system, I am compelled to say that crime has increased out of all proportion to the increase in inhabitants.” By 1857, the facility contained 256 cells with two men to a cell.

During that year, the General Assembly appropriated funds for erection of a new 1,000-cell prison at Joliet, and in 1860, all prisoners were transferred there from Alton.  The federal government then took over the Alton facility for use as a military reservation for Confederate prisoners and dissenters.  At one time, nearly 2,000 men were incarcerated there.

The original leasing of prisoners to the lowest bidder, which was still in vogue when the Joliet prison was opened, was abandoned in July 1867 as un-Christian and inhumane.  The state took over control and management of the institution and during the last of Governor John R. Palmer’s administration (1873), the prison became self-supporting and had a surplus.  The institution’s favorable cash position was due mainly to the fact that although the leasing plan had been abandoned, another system was devised whereby the state let to private contractors the services of fixed numbers of prisoners to work in specified industries at so much per day per prisoner.  As distasteful as the system was, it seems to have been profitable to the state as well as to the contractors.  Many men laid the foundations for large fortunes in the shoe, shirt and furniture factories and the foundries of the old Joliet prison.

Opposition to this system began to make itself felt, however, the hue and cry coming principally from organized labor.  But it was not until 1904 that the state abandoned contract labor and substituted in its place the prison industries system.  Manufacturers and labor soon attacked this system, however, and gradually succeeded in reducing the industries to the vanishing point.  In 1931, the present state-use system was adopted by the General Assembly, after organized manufacturers and labor agreed to the bill.

As the prison population grew, so did the institution itself.  New additions were built from time to time and minor changes in the prisoners’ daily routine took place.  The inmates were fed in their cells until May 30, 1903, when a central dining room was opened.  The lock-step was continued until June 1905, when it was abolished.

The Illinois State Reform School at Pontiac was opened on June 23, 1871, being first used as a facility for male first time offenders aged 16 to 26.  The reform school idea originated from the Illinois Teachers Association, who secured the enactment of the law creating the facility in 1867.  The original site was given to the state by Jesse W. Fell, of Bloomington, a friend of Abraham Lincoln and to whom Lincoln gave his autobiography.  The Pontiac facility’s name was changed in 1892, becoming the Illinois State Reformatory, and again in 1933, when it became the Pontiac branch of the Illinois State Penitentiary. 

The next penitentiary to be built in Illinois was Menard.  The site chosen faces the Mississippi River, almost opposite the site of old Kaskaskia, the land formerly belonging to the Menard family.  Most of the labor of building the facility was furnished by prisoners transferred from the Joliet penitentiary.  The first cellhouse was completed in 1878, and contained 400 cells.  The second cellhouse was built in 1890.

History appears to have been amiss in accounting for the incarceration of female prisoners.  However, in 1889, the General Assembly passed a law requiring that women be sent to the Joliet prison.  For a time, they were housed on the fourth floor of the administration building, and in June 1895, a building for women prisoners was opened.  It had accommodations for 100 females, each cell with an outside window.  This facility was used until the 1930s, when the State Reformatory for Women was opened at Dwight.  The institution at Joliet was remodeled at a cost of $100,000 and converted into a receiving and diagnostic depot.

During the first year of Governor Charles S. Deneen’s administration in 1909, a widespread agitation against conditions at the Joliet prison attracted the attention of Illinois’ citizens, resulting in a series of investigations.  Spirited rebukes of the state for maintaining brutal and inhumane conditions resulted in an act of the legislature, which appropriated initial funding for acquisition of lands for a new prison near Joliet.  The idea was that the new facility would absorb the population of the old prison and that plant could be abandoned.

A commission of three had been provided by law to design and erect the penitentiary.  By 1917, the walls of the first cellhouse of the new Stateville plant began to creep upward.  The architect for the new institution had visited several countries in Europe in quest of ideas and returned home with enthusiastic plans for circular cellhouses.  The original plans called for each cell to accommodate one man comfortably and the inclusion of toilet facilities and an outside window.  Work progressed until the 65 acres of compound were enclosed by a wall 35-feet high and 6,750-feet long.  The wall was completed in the summer of 1920, but other essentials, such as heat and kitchens had not been completed so that the prison could be occupied.  The penitentiary was finally completed and prisoners began moving in.  Notwithstanding the development of the Stateville branch, an official at the time reported, “The old prison with its tiny cells still has its 1,800 men and in periods of industrial activity, it and its cell blocks are swathed in the smoke and the gases of the steel mills that have been built up to its front gate.”

In 1923, when the law was amended so that circuit, county and municipal courts might sentence offenders, the Illinois State Farm at Vandalia came into being.  The original 1,200-acre site was designed for misdemeanants found guilty of petty offenses with terms ranging from 60 days to a year.

The State Reformatory for Women at Dwight was established in the early 1930s through combined efforts of the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs whose members had worked diligently for many years to promote appropriate legislation for creation of such a facility.

A new era in corrections in Illinois was begun on July 22, 1969, when Governor Richard B. Ogilvie created the Task Force on Corrections, and named as its chairman Peter B. Bensinger, chairman of the Illinois Youth Commission.  The task force met throughout the summer of 1969 and presented its recommendations to Governor Ogilvie that November. 

In presenting his message outlining creation of the new Department of Corrections to the 76th General Assembly, Governor Ogilvie said, “In recommending this department, I emphasize this: we must break the present cycle of arrest, incarceration and release, which in a majority of cases is repeated over and over again.  We are faced with the most difficult of all tasks—the understanding and changing of human behavior—and we must approach our job with a full awareness of the failure of past policies.

“In Illinois we keep our adult felons incarcerated for periods longer than 45 other states, yet our rate of recidivism, or return to prison, is one of the highest.  We speak of rehabilitation, but we provide only one vocational officer to every 50 custodial officers at Joliet.  We have given our state a half-way house program and work release programs, but we have not given a full professional department to administer these programs.

“The proposal which I am submitting to you today for the creation of the Department of Corrections is an adaption of the Model Act for Standard Correctional Services of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.  This Model Act has served as the pattern for penal reform in four states in the last three years.  It reflects a joint effort, which we have undertaken with the John Howard Association and the Illinois Committee of the NCCD.”

The governor ended his special message to the legislature with the plea, “the threat to our people and our institutions is not of the future—it is a clear and present danger.  It must be met with all the skills, the tools, the financial backing and the dedication we can summon to the task.  With your help, this administration will take the first vital steps which this present danger demands.”

Source:  First Annual Report 1970

              Illinois Department of Corrections