LINCOLN — A new position to oversee the women’s division within the Illinois Department of Corrections was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Bruce Rauner, following a tour of the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln.
“We need to help these women get the help they need so that once they serve their time, they can be productive in society,” Rauner said. “Female prisoners are often different from male prisoners in the fact that they are often mothers and are the main caregiver in their home. Prison should not be a punishment, but instead, a place to reform and better themselves for their release.”
Decatur Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility, is the state's other women's prison.
On the Logan prison tour, Rauner said he was encouraged by the amount of support the female inmates received and also encouraged by the new legislation, which is intended to provide more services. In addition to creating the post of chief administrator, the legislation also incorporates gender-responsive programming and addresses specific challenges that female offenders face.
“It’s time we adjust our strategies and find solutions that set women up for success when they leave prison,” Rauner said. “Many of these women are mothers. If we don’t take steps to help put them on a better path, we will see their sons and daughters cycle through the prison system. We can’t have that.”
Rauner also said that many of the offenders were abused physically, emotionally and/or sexually prior to their incarceration and the new division will allow for more committed resources to help them.
Rauner was joined on the tour by Corrections Director John Baldwin, Logan Warden Glen Austin and former warden Maggie Burke, who helped write the legislation.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, joined Rauner for the signing of the new legislation. HB 3904, which passed the General Assembly last June, takes effect June 1.
“The governor has said all along that he intends to improve our correctional facilities, and this legislation is a step in that direction,” Butler said. “This makes Illinois a leader on trauma-informed services specific to the female population in our correctional system. Other states are looking at us as a model on prison reform.”
Offenders at the Logan said the bill was a positive step forward for those who are locked up.
"I am ecstatic," said Claudette Lowe, an inmate at Logan, who is from Decatur. "Some people come in here angry or shy or in need of mental health and what this will do, is provide more of those services that they need."
Rauner met with some of the offenders in a self-help class.
"We were told that there would be some media coming, but we didn't know until this morning that the governor was going to be here," she said. "It's exciting that he came, but more importantly, it's a positive step toward helping the women that are in here."
The Logan County facility opened in 1978 and can hold 2,284 inmates. Logan has 1,658 inmates. The Decatur facility, which opened in 2000, has about 615 inmates with a capacity of 792, according to the most recent information on the Corrections website .
The Logan facility was transitioned from a male to a female prison in 2013 in conjunction with the closure of the Dwight and Lincoln correctional centers.
“That left us with a lot of issues with the training of staff, different populations who weren’t used to living with each other, and it was very difficult for us,” Burke said. “This will allow this facility to assist with the challenges these women face.”
Baldwin said both offenders and staff will benefit from the new legislation.
“We recognize that making change means investing in our staff and giving them the tools to keep them and those who are incarcerated safe,” Baldwin said. “We’re teaching staff how to use their authority effectively, how to understand the needs of female offenders, and how to help the women restructure their thinking about challenging situations. Our staff had never received these types of training before 2015.”
Rauner said he will continue to work on criminal justice reform and pointed to the services, such as the cosmetology program already established at Logan as a model.
“We need to focus on training these offenders so that when they get out, they not only have the skills to get a good job, but a good-paying job as well,” he said. “The cosmetology program is a great example, but we want to add more such as welding and other programs.”