Wednesday, September 17, 2008

C-number inmates not a new issue

A series of inmates who by now have spent at least three decades of their lives in Illinois’ prison system say the Illinois Prisoner Review Board is so obsessed with punishment that it ignores rehabilitation.

That was the stance taken earlier this week by the John Howard Association, the Chicago-based group that monitors prison conditions and attempts to ensure that the basic human rights of inmates are observed.

SPECIFICALLY, THE ASSOCIATION spoke out once again on behalf of “C number” inmates – which refers to inmates who were sentenced prior to 1978. Their Corrections Department case numbers all start with the letter “C,” hence the nickname.

The significance of that date is that was the year the General Assembly and then-Gov. James R. Thompson approved a new sentencing scheme for people convicted of crimes. Judges now hand down specific sentences.

Previously, judges would set a range of time, and ultimately it was up to the parole board (which has morphed into the Prisoner Review Board) to decide when an inmate should be released from prison.

The change was made out of a belief back then that setting specific sentences was more reasonable, since it let an inmate know exactly how long he could expect to spend in prison.

UNDER THE OLD system, an inmate’s fate was completely out of his control, and he had no clue what would happen to him.

The result is that some inmates kept perpetually coming up for parole, only to be turned down. Take the case of Richard Speck, who was convicted of the 1966 slayings of eight student nurses at South Chicago Community Hospital.

After his death sentence was overturned in 1972 (all death sentences everywhere in the United States were overturned that year by the Supreme Court), Speck was re-sentenced to eight consecutive prison terms of between 50 and 150 years each.

He kept coming up for parole every few years, until he finally died at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet – having never convinced a parole board of his ability to rehabilitate himself.

BUT SPECK WAS not the only case. Although inmates since 1978 have been sentenced to specific terms (with set rules by which specific amounts of time can be knocked off the sentence for “good behavior”), the Prisoner Review Board continues to hear these old cases – for the inmates were sentenced under different rules.

Although some inmates have managed to win their parole throughout the years and others have died off, the John Howard Association estimates there are roughly 300 inmates still in the Illinois Department of Corrections system who have to go through the old system.

The problem, as inmate rights activists see it, is that there are two systems, and the old system has turned out to be unfair to the inmates, since there are many cases of the older inmates who wound up doing significantly more time in prison for the same crime as an inmate sentenced under the modern way of doing things.

Now like I said, this is not a new issue. Although the John Howard Association held a press conference earlier this week to stress the concept that these inmates have spent so much of their lives in prison that they are old and incapable of posing a threat any longer to the general public, this is not a new issue.

SO I HAVE heard the Corrections Department note that some of these older “C number” inmates were given a choice back when the system was changed in 1978 to be re-sentenced to a specific prison term – rather than the indeterminate method that was once common in prison systems across the country.

These older inmates chose to keep their existing sentences, perhaps out of a belief they could persuade a parole board to let them free somewhere closer to the minimum end of their prison term.

By that logic, these inmates chose their own fate, and should not be allowed to have the rules changed just for them. It is the same logic used whenever people argue on behalf of William Heirens (convicted of three North Side slayings in 1946, including that of a 6-year-old girl), who remains in prison to this day and has shown an impressive record of achievements while in prison.

Yet his detractors argue that he agreed to a life prison term to avoid execution, and ought to accept the fact that he will die in prison.

THE PROBLEM BECOMES that the Prisoner Review Board (which argues that it gets criticized by both liberal- and conservative-oriented activist groups, so it must be doing something right) has developed the mentality that it exists to keep people in prison.

Perhaps it is because it spends most of its time these days hearing the worst criminal cases in the Corrections Department system (among its duties, the review board makes recommendations to a governor whenever a condemned inmate appeals for clemency) that it is not suited to deal with many of these remaining old cases, which have resulted in some inmates doing decades in prison for crimes that comparable younger inmates did a few years.

So what is likely to happen? I won’t be surprised if the answer turns out to be, “nothing much.”

Like I said before, this is not a new issue. I remember hearing these same activists making their arguments a decade ago to a lack of interest among state officials.

THEIR ARGUMENTS THAT these are “model inmates” who have taken opportunities to educate themselves in prison and who no longer pose a threat to society because of their age and/or physical condition were ignored back then.

For the bottom line is that too many prosecutors are willing to take the view of DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett, who told the Peoria Journal-Star newspaper that these inmates committed heinous crimes and deserve to remain in prison. “It’s not the age that defines who a person still is. It’s their character, what makes them tick.”

With that attitude, this is an issue that will only go away when many of these inmates wind up dying in prison. And for those who think somehow that paying attention to their situation is misguided, all I’d have to say is that it somehow seems to be a waste of state resources to continue to incarcerate these inmates – especially since many now have to be kept in special facilities to accommodate their deteriorating health conditions.

All this is paid for on your (and mine) tax dollars.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Inmate rights activists are once again trying to stir up support for prisoners ( sentenced under old guidelines that have resulted in them spending significant portions of their lives in Illinois’ prison system.

The John Howard Association has created a special project within its group to address the concerns ( of “C-number” inmates.

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