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Prison Watchdog Group Watching US Jails

Inmates hang out on their bunks in the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas.
Inmates hang out on their bunks in the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas.
Prison Watchdog Group Watching US Jails
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The United States has almost a fourth of the world's prison population -- more than two million people, to be exact. That number comes from the International Centre for Prison Studies in London.

Among the groups working to improve conditions for prisoners and guarantee their rights is the John Howard Association of Illinois. The association's work was recognized last month. The group received a $500,000 award from the MacArthur Foundation.

The John Howard Association uncovers conditions that need to be changed and gives voice to prisoners' interests.

“Ricky” was jailed for murder, and spent almost 35 years of his life in prison. The 59-year-old is now free from jail. But he has troubling memories of his incarceration.

“I would have to say psychologically, you know, trying to endure day after day, week after week, you know, and watching your loved ones pass as the years go on.”

Ricky also had to deal with problems and issues that prisoners face each day. Ricky lived in a small room, with other inmates.

“They would put you in a cell with someone you wasn't compatible with, but mainly I would have to say, not having a voice. And, uh, prison conditions, you know, you have over crowdedness."

Jennifer Vollen-Katz is the acting Executive Director for the John Howard Association, or JHA. The group has been closely watching the prison system in the American state of Illinois. She says the system was designed for just over 32,000 inmates, but many more live there now.

"We're somewhere in the neighborhood of 47,000 inmates within the State of Illinois Department of Corrections."

Jennifer Vollen-Katz says overcrowding, putting too many people in a small area, is a big problem. She says it can create unsafe conditions for both prisoners and people working at the jail. She says overcrowding leads to a lack of what she calls 'programing.'

"A lack of programing means that inmates are not able to use their time productively, to gain skills, to do things that might increase their employment opportunities upon release, not to mention just sheer boredom and missing your family and all that being exasperated by lack of productive activity and engagement, which is certainly a problem inside our prisons right now."

JHA watches over and reports on Illinois' prisons for adults and those for juveniles, where young people serve out their sentences. Ms. Vollen-Katz says the group’s goal is to educate policy makers and the public about the truths of criminal justice policy.

"We believe that there is importance simply in showing up, and bearing witness and reporting our observations of what goes on inside prison to the outside world so that the outside world remembers that our citizens that are in prison are still our citizens, that these are still people and that these are people that will eventually return to our communities."

Over the years, JHA has helped to influence major policy changes. For example, a recent report uncovered poor medical treatment of prisoners. The report led to public hearings on prison healthcare, and an investigation of the Illinois Department of Corrections healthcare system.

In 2009, JHA raised the importance of identifying and treating mental sickness among prisoners. One of its suggestions for preventing suicide was to do away with metal bunk beds in juvenile prisons.

"They posed a great danger to those experiencing suicidal thoughts. And in report after report, we pointed out how dangerous this kind of furniture was. And not 100 percent yet, but pretty close to, the furniture have been traded out to plastic molded bedding that doesn't pose the same danger that the old furniture did."

The John Howard Association was one of nine non-profit groups honored this year with a MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Ms. Vollen-Katz says the award will help her group do its work, because JHA does not receive any government money.

"We received a $500,000 award, which is incredibly exciting for us in terms of our ability to build capacity, to increase our communications and outreach and get more support and to do more work; all that is incredibly exciting and important for an organization of our size."

With this recognition and support, Jennifer Vollen-Katz says, JHA is set to continue working in support of prison reforms. The group is working to make sure that the Illinois justice system is both fair and caring.

I’m Anne Ball.

VOA’s Faiza Elmasry wrote this story. Anne Ball wrote it for Learning English and George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

incarceration n. imprisonment

endure v. to suffer; to deal with

exasperated adj. to feel very angry

juvenile adj. relating to or meant for young people, as an adjective, always used before a noun