Former IDOC Director on Plans for Pontiac Prison, Home to State’s Highest Concentration of ‘Seriously Mentally Ill’ Incarcerated People

Video: Rob Jeffreys, former director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, on plans for future improvements to the department and its prisons. (Laura Chavez for WTTW News)

In early March, Rob Jeffreys announced his plans to step down as director of the Illinois Department of Corrections after four years on the job.

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As WTTW News began reporting our series on Pontiac Prison, premiering Monday, the department declined our request for a formal interview, but we caught up with Jeffreys at a discussion with the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Long Sentences where he was among a group of panelists.

Among Pontiac’s challenges is its status as the most short-staffed facility in IDOC. But Jeffreys said having a lower incarceration rate could work in the agency’s favor.

“Our population is significantly lower: we’re down 27, 28,000 compared to 39,000,” he told WTTW News. “With that, we have the opportunity to reduce our footprint. And by reducing our footprint we can also consolidate resources. We don't need as many staff to run facilities if we don't have many people incarcerated in those facilities.”

But Jeffreys stopped short of suggesting closure of any particular facility. He said the department has hired an outside firm, CGL Companies, to assess the“physical longevity of each facility, it looks at programmatic aspects of each facility, takes into consideration population projections. It also looks at our staffing as well, too.”

“Based on that master planning, they’ll make recommendations based on where we should spend good money, and keep spending good money into bad product, “ he said.

The report has not yet been finalized or released.

“We got a lot of facilities that are 100 years old, we got several that are 130 years old, we got some deferred maintenance in the billions for this agency. We got EPA issues. Some of these facilities are just not conducive for rehabilitation,” he explained.

Pontiac Prison is also home to a significant portion of people designated as “seriously mentally ill." With 26% of the population receiving that classification, Pontiac’s is the highest population of seriously mentally ill inmates in IDOC.

“One of things people don't realize is corrections has become default for mental health,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have 42 to 43% of population is on some type of mental health caseload. And of that 43%, about 14% are mentally ill diagnosed.” He says that proportion is higher in the population of female incarcerated people.

Jeffreys says IDOC has partnered with the Department of Human Services on both policies and accreditation to open a treatment center at Joliet, where DHS will operate mental health programming.

“We have to provide programming, out-of-cell time, and to be able to do that we need to be able to consolidate our resources,” he said. “I think Pontiac serves as one of our mental health facilities along with Dixon which has a mental health treatment unit.

Jeffreys said the agency is in the process of hiring a new mental health provider. 

Meanwhile, the state is facing at least one consent decree ordered by the courts over its medical and mental health care.

“We have been working towards coming out of those consent decrees: putting policy in place, putting auditing practices in place, increasing our staffing levels. And not only that, but looking at the mission at particular facilities to provide those type of mental health treatment for our population,” he said.

Jeffreys last day on the job was April 1. Former Chief of Staff Latoya J. Hughes has been serving as acting director. A timeline for naming a permanent director has not yet been made public.

In a two-part series, WTTW News explores the challenges in running Pontiac Correctional Facility, what advocates for the incarcerated say should be done to make the prison more humane and what the prison means to the surrounding community. Visit and watch  “Chicago Tonight”  at 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.on Monday and Tuesday to view the full stories.

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