By Steve Mills
State prison officials hold close to 1,250 inmates beyond their release dates every year -- not because they pose a threat to the public but because they cannot find a place to live that parole officers find suitable, according to court papers and interviews.
For Illinois taxpayers, the extended stays add as much as $25 million a year in prison costs, compared with the far lower tab for parole.
It's a practice commonly known as "violating at the door" because guards at one time walked inmates who had completed their sentences to the prison gates, only to return them to their cells for failing to find a suitable home -- considered a parole violation.
Now, according to prison officials, such dramatic "turnarounds" rarely if ever take place, yet hundreds of inmates continue to be held every year for months or even years beyond their release dates. They must be set free by the time their terms of parole end, sometimes as long as three years later.
The practice, which mostly affects convicted sex offenders, raises a host of concerns, most notably that inmates released only after their parole has ended will miss out on those benefits on their sudden return to the outside world.
"It defeats the very purpose of parole by putting the inmate back in prison instead of in that transition period where you are supposed to receive rehabilitation," said E. King Poor, a Chicago attorney who has represented inmates affected by the practice. "It's bad for the inmate, it's bad for society."
Exacerbating the problem is the woefully limited space for sex offenders in the state's halfway houses. According to state prison officials, only nine beds are reserved for sex offenders throughout the state -- none of them in Cook County, where the largest number of parolees go to live.
Critics charge that the turnaround practice -- as it is also known -- has an outsized impact on the poor because they already face many obstacles in finding housing. Add to that the fact that convicted sex offenders face housing restrictions unlike other inmates, and finding a suitable home becomes an even greater challenge. Critics allege, too, that parole officers sometimes act arbitrarily in ruling out a home as suitable, a charge prison officials dispute.
Illinois Department of Corrections officials admit frustration over the hundreds of inmates whose releases are delayed but say their hands are tied by restrictions that prohibit some sex offenders from living near schools, parks and other places where children congregate. Inmates who miss out on probation can pose more of a threat to the public once they're finally released than inmates who were able to transition back into society, acknowledges the department, which also handles parolees.
"They're going to get out eventually, so here's the key: Do you want to discharge somebody after they've gone through parole and been helped and assisted, or without those services and without the state having a legal right to supervise anything you do?" said Tom Shaer, a department spokesman. "We believe it's better to go back to society in a supervised fashion. We believe in the parole mission."
According to Shaer, about 1,000 convicted sex offenders are held each year beyond their release date -- a rate that officials have said has been fairly consistent over about the past decade. The same fate befalls about another 250 inmates without a sex crime background, mostly because their potential homes are not suitable for electronic monitoring, a requirement of their parole, he said.
Prison costs almost $22,000 a year for each inmate, compared with about $2,000 a year for those on parole, according to Shaer.
Officials have said the convicted sex offenders are not held beyond their release dates because they pose a danger to the public. If they were regarded as still a threat, authorities could seek to have them deemed a sexually violent person under the law and committed indefinitely, according to Shaer.
"There's no determination of risk in this," said Alexa van Brunt, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University's law school who has worked on the issue.
According to corrections officials, the practice began about a decade ago under Roger Walker, then the department's director. It is a byproduct of state laws and parole rules that require inmates to have a suitable place to live before they are released on mandatory supervised release, also known as parole. Inmates can be held for the duration of their parole, often three years, if a parole officer deems their housing unsuitable. In those cases, they'd receive none of the services they would get on parole by the time they finally are set free.
For a department with an annual budget exceeding $1.25 billion but struggling with overcrowding and money woes, the turnarounds appear to be a drain in many ways.
"It makes no sense from a financial, legal or moral perspective," said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People's Law Center, which represents the poor on prison and other issues.
Shaer insisted the department's officers work hard to try to find suitable housing for parolees, but he acknowledged, "We have budget issues and we have legal issues on this."
Inmates have challenged the practice in court but have been unsuccessful. Most recently, inmate Johnny Cordrey asked the Illinois Supreme Court to rule the practice unconstitutional, saying it violated his equal protection and due process rights. Cordrey, who in 1993 was sentenced to 36 years in prison for kidnapping and rape, claimed he was imprisoned beyond his parole date because he was indigent and could not find housing.
Cordrey was scheduled to be paroled for three years beginning in April 2013, but he could not find a home that met the requirements set by parole officers. On the day he was to be released, he instead was served with a parole violation and kept locked up at Menard Correctional Center downstate.
He remained there for another 11/2 years before he was finally set free in October 2014.
"The guy had no support, no tools, so we just threw him out on the streets," said Poor, who represented Cordrey before the state's highest court. "I said, 'Johnny, what are you going to do?' He said, 'I don't know.' That same story gets repeated over and over with other inmates."
Cordrey was given a one-way bus ticket, traveling to Peoria in hopes of finding space at a Salvation Army shelter, Poor said.
While Cordrey had already been released, the state supreme court took the case because it determined it was a matter of public interest. In the end, though, the court, while noting the policy appeared to present a genuine issue, concluded the state legislature might be a better forum to deal with it.
Poor said he hoped to work with the state attorney general's office to find a solution without returning to court, but he said a class-action lawsuit was also a possibility. He said the state could "buy lots of therapy and halfway houses" with the money spent on the extended prison stays.
A spokesman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the office was open to taking part in discussions to resolve the issue.
"Ultimately, any discussion would need to include legislators and people who play a critical role in the criminal justice system," said the spokeswoman, Maura Possley.
Herman Townsell, who spent 71/2 years in prison for a 1994 home invasion, kidnapping and sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl and has been in and out of prison since for various offenses, was set to be released from state prison in October 2013, but he could not find a place to live that a parole officer deemed suitable. He ended up spending another year in prison, according to documents.
Now he moves between his mother's South Side residence or the homes of friends and relatives when he isn't homeless and sleeping on the train or wherever he can stay warm. He said he works when he can.
"I don't know what they want me to do. I really don't. The restrictions are impossible," said Townsell, 47. "I get tired of going back to prison. But it's almost impossible to find a place to live. Murderers don't have it as hard."
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