Former inmate warns of dangers of overcrowding in Illinois prisons

By Maggie Vespa

July 10, 2012 Updated Jul 10, 2012 at 10:16 PM CDT

PEORIA, Ill.-- One Peoria man with inside knowledge of Illinois state prisons, says the spotlight on overcrowding is overdue.

He and another advocate are speaking out about the dangers and repercussions of a chaotic corrections system.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon 40 year-old Steve Parnell finishes his workout at the Peoria Riverplex and heads home. It's a sense of freedom he has had to get used to.

"Unfortunately my career in the department of corrections started way back in the early 90's as a young man, young person that didn't make the right choices all the time," he said.

Parnell bounced around between several federal and Illinois state prisons for roughly 15 years, mostly for drug-related crimes. His last stint ended in 2006.

Parnell says even then, the problem of too many inmates for too little space was a big one.

"And half of those are drug addicts that are in those places, and the first things that the state wants to cut is treatment centers, mental health and the prison system," he said.

Parnell recalls inmates being forced to sleep in gymnasiums or common areas.

If you had a cell, he says you and your cellmate were confined to that 6x8 foot room up to 18 hours a day.

He calls prisons 'human warehouses.'

Former corrections officer Carl Cannon says those conditions put both inmates and staff in danger.

"You don't have enough jobs. You don't have enough recreation. The food is not optimal. You don't get to sit where you want to sit," said Cannon. "So the staff have to dictate that, and because they dictate it, they become the bad guy."

Both men agree, to most, prisons are not a top priority over schools, healthcare and other issues.

But Parnell, who is now sober, working in construction, and a father, says imagine if a fraction of the near 50,000 inmates in Illinois followed in his footsteps.

"Show them a better way," he said. "Give them the resources to have a better way, and turn them into tax paying citizens. What is that going to do for the economy? What is that going to do to the deficit? We all benefit."

A plea to end a problem that, he says, is getting harder for Springfield to sweep under the rug.

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