Earlier this year, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) announced plans to allocate funds from the state’s proposed 2025 budget to demolish and rebuild two correctional facilities, formerly incarcerated people and prison abolitionists expressed praise and concern.

The collective goal for both groups is reducing the mass incarceration footprint. The planned rebuilding of Logan Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Lincoln, and Stateville Correctional Facility, a men’s prison in Crest Hill, complicates that goal. The Illinois State Legislature is expected to vote on Pritzker’s proposed budget by the end of their legislative session later this month.

“I give him [Pritzker] credit for saying these buildings are terrible, and we need to just tear them down. I’m gonna give him credit for that,” Avalon Betts-Gaston said. She’s the executive director of the Illinois Alliance for Reentry & Justice, which aims to create alternatives to incarceration, reduce recidivism, and end mass incarceration. 

However, Betts-Gaston disagrees with state officials building new multi-million dollar carceral facilities while the root causes of crime and violence still aren’t being addressed.

Betts-Gaston served four years in federal prison for wire fraud and was released in 2020. Sustainable public safety for Betts-Gaston includes community-based care, housing, living wages, and access to quality healthcare and education. 

“I had a different response to the idea of building a new prison because I know firsthand what prisons do, and it is not consistent with what true, long-lasting, sustainable public safety needs or how it will get us there. The thought of having a new building that women will still be subjected to…” she said, referring to the Logan Correctional Facility, “a new building doesn’t change the culture. All it does is house that culture in a pretty package.” 

While some have praised the news, there are lingering concerns among formerly incarcerated individuals, educators and community members. One concern is the future of education programs at Stateville and what relocation would look like for people who are serving time there, which could disrupt established communities within the prison. Secondly, educators and formerly incarcerated people at this moment are demanding that Pritzker review and consider clemency petitions.

Lastly, Stateville is important to the history of organizations such as the Illinois Black Panther Party, who argue that it should remain open to the public for tours and maintained as a tool for examination and evidence of the historical record of Black torture in Illinois and the United States.

Newspaper clipping of Black Panther Party platform and program
Photos courtesy of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party

“Our history is being lost in this city. It’s just being totally demolished,” Leila Wills, executive director of the Historical Preservation Society of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, told The TRiiBE. Wills referenced the displacement of Black families who were pushed out of their homes as the city built the Dan Ryan Expressway. 

“The location itself gives an education that even books can’t give,” she said, referring to Stateville. “What happens when we don’t have those structures is that education relies on us. And it depends on who’s in session, who’s in office, or what party is running things. These kinds of things can change through the years as opposed to a structure that will speak to the history itself rather than us having to recreate it. It’s just a lot more reliable when you have an actual location.”

However, Benard McKinley, who was formerly incarcerated at Stateville, sees things differently. 

“As an abolitionist, I don’t think anything that creates a state of psychological and physical torture should be memorialized. I don’t think no prison should be memorialized, no matter its history,” McKinley said.

Since Pritzker’s announcement on March 15, the IDOC is now proposing closing Logan and moving the prison from its current location in Lincoln and building a new facility on available grounds at Stateville in Crest Hill, according to a proposal submitted by IDOC to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) on April 26. Here is the link to view report

Initially, Pritzker announced his proposed plan to spend $900 million in new funds to demolish and rebuild both facilities on March 15.

IDOC officials, in their updated report to COGFA, said it would take $116 million in funding for Logan to remain open and operational longterm, recommended that it should close.

They are also requesting $161 million from the state’s 2025 budget for Stateville and $79.5 million for Logan.

Stateville and Logan were selected based on a 2023 CGL report assessing the condition of IDOC facilities. The report found that 11 of Stateville’s buildings had “complete degradation, interoperability, and need for replacement.” Stateville opened in 1925.

Logan opened in the 1870s and was previously called the Illinois Asylum for Febble-Minded Children. The report found that Logan was determined to “be inefficient, ineffective, and unsuitable for any population” due to its aging coal-fired power system, molding housing unit and layout.

The conditions of aging Illinois prisons like Stateville have come under fire by incarcerated people and prisoner rights organizations like the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), the John Howard Association and the Coalition to Decarcerate Illinois because of its poor drinking water, living conditions, rust, mold, plumbing issues and rodents, among other issues.

In 2022, the UPLC filed a class-action lawsuit against the Northern Reception and Classification Center (NRCC) prison because of its unsafe water and other issues. Stateville is the parent institution of NRCC, and they’re over a mile apart and share the same water supply. The NRCC houses people in the northern part of Illinois before they’re moved to other prisons more permanently.

“The water, definitely in the early morning, comes out looking a light brown because of the rust. You have to let it run, but it also has a strange smell, one of rotten eggs,” James Soto said. 

At 20, Soto was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life without parole in 1982. He served 42 years in prison before his exoneration and release in Dec. 2023. He spent his periods of incarceration between Stateville and Menard Correctional Center in Menard, Ill.

“If you taste it, it has a metallic taste or a chemical taste. You can actually see sediments floating in there from time to time. So the water was definitely not the best,” he explained. 

In 2023, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued drinking water violation notices to 10 Illinois prisons, including Stateville. Soto also explained that incarcerated people frequently complained about the water while he was there. Testing conducted by the EPA at Stateville found bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, according to the UPLC.

Educational programming at Stateville was one of the highlights for Soto and Benard McKinley while incarcerated. They built community within their cohort and gained bachelor’s degrees. 

In 2023, Soto, Benard McKinley and 14 other students earned four-year degrees from Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program in 2023 (NPEP), making them the first class of incarcerated students to receive bachelor’s degrees from a top 10 university. 

“It was difficult; college is rigorous. The program doesn’t cut corners when it comes to reading and writing, you have to be on point,” Soto said. You have to bring it and produce college-level work. I hadn’t been in college in years, and I was one of the older students in the cohort.” 

Soto credits his instructors and other students in his degree program for encouraging him along the way. He graduated magna cum laude and obtained a bachelor of science degree in social science. He calls the experience transformative and plans to take the LSAT to become an attorney focused on helping wrongfully convicted people. 

McKinley echoed Soto’s sentiments. “Enrolling in college itself sparked a new passion and focus that made me want to be more than just a paralegal. So I became very focused and driven,” McKinley said.  

At 16, McKinley was arrested for murder and was later convicted and sentenced to 100 years in 2004. His sentence was later reduced to 25 years, and he was released from Stateville in Dec. 2023 after serving 22 years. 

In 2022, he was the first person in Illinois to take the LSAT exam while incarcerated and the first person from NPEP to be accepted to law school. This fall, McKinley will start law school at Northwestern University. He dreams of becoming a civil rights attorney. 

“I would say that process was definitely enlightening in a lot of ways because it provoked critical thought,” McKinley said. “It also allowed me to be critical in how I analyze not only myself and what I’m trying to do with my life but also my surroundings. It opened my eyes to a lot of things, like social injustices, and that provoked my passion for standing up for what was right and fighting against negative social dynamics. So, I became passionate about the law.” 

With the previous news about Stateville temporarily closing, educators like Christina Rivers were concerned about the future of Stateville’s programming. She feared it could be disrupted and that cohorts of students enrolled in programming would be split up and housed among other correctional centers in Illinois. Logan doesn’t have a degree program. 

“Stateville is a place where people tend to be for a long, long time, and some of these guys have been there for 30 or so years, and that’s the only place they’ve been. Being incarcerated, I’m learning, builds community like nothing else. It’s part of your survival,” Rivers said. 

Rivers is an associate professor of political science at DePaul University. She’s been teaching at Stateville since 2016 through DePaul’s Inside-Out Prisoner Exchange Program, which provides college courses at Stateville and Cook County Jail. DePaul also works in coordination with other institutions such as Northwestern University, PNAP and the Illinois Coalition for Higher Ed in Prison. 

“We know that life involves moves, whether you’re inside or out, but their concern is that they, not just be flung willy-nilly everywhere. Both are for their own sake as individuals in terms of the programming they’re involved in and also for purposes of visitation,” she said, voicing concerns from her students at Stateville. 

She added that many of her students’ families and others are from the Chicagoland area, which is closer to Stateville. So, if and when relocation happens, it will be challenging for their families to maintain their visits if they’re transferred further south.

The IDOC declined to interview for this story. However, an IDOC spokesperson answered The TRiiBE’s questions about where incarcerated people at Stateville and Logan correctional facilities will be moved to, and what the IDOC will do to mitigate possible disruptions in programming as demolition and construction occur. 

Naomi Puzzello, an IDOC spokesperson, said in an email to The TRiiBE that people incarcerated at Stateville will not be relocated until Illinois lawmakers approve Pritzker’s 2025 budget and all requirements are met under the State Facilities Closure Act. The women incarcerated at Logan will stay until construction is complete as long as it doesn’t pose any risks. 

In terms of what will happen to programming, Puzzello added that “this announcement has not resulted in immediate changes to operations or programming. The Department continues to enroll individuals in custody in programming and will make every effort to mitigate disruptions to education and programming throughout this process.”

“We’re committed to working with folks during this and afterward as long as places like this exist. As much as we don’t want them to. We’re committed to providing the programs that people who are in there really want. We just want to keep it going,” River said.

The dwindling prison population in Illinois is yet another reason why abolitionists and others feel that building a new multi-million dollar correctional facility is unnecessary. 

“We should be demanding that the people at Stateville prison be released,” Erica Meiners said. Meiner is a professor of education and women’s and gender studies at Northeastern Illinois University and co-director of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP). 

The Illinois prison population has decreased due to the passage of criminal justice reforms, such as sentencing reforms. The state’s prison population dropped by 44 percent, from nearly 50,000 in 2012 to 29,395 in Oct. 2022. 

“A large percentage of them have clemency petitions before the governor that the governor has not acted on, and some of them have clemency petitions that have been waiting for years to be reviewed,” she added.

Olivia Kuncio, a spokesperson for Pritzker, said in an email to The TRiiBE that, to date, he’s granted 383 pardons and sentence commutations out of 2,782 decisions

“Gov. Pritzker is a lifelong advocate for criminal justice reform and that commitment is why he’s championed legislative efforts that make our criminal justice system fairer and more equitable. The clemency process involves a very careful review of the individual facts of each petition and the recommendation of the Prisoner Review Board,” Kuncio wrote in an email to The TRiiBE

“The Governor takes this responsibility very seriously and will continue his efforts to ensure that the state’s criminal justice system lives up to the principles of atonement and rehabilitation. Illinois prison populations are at record lows, and the Governor continues to work closely with the Department of Corrections and other stakeholders as the Logan and Stateville projects progress.”

The Illinois General Assembly is expected to vote on Pritzker’s 2025 budget by the end of the month.

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.