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Stateville Correctional Center

A sign seen from outside Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill shows the Illinois Department of Corrections logo. The Illinois Department of Corrections is still responding to questions from people inside Illinois prisons, and their attorneys, about the application of a law awarding additional sentence credits for work and education. Recently two people at Robinson Correctional Center went on hunger strikes because of the issue.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Problems calculating sentence credits prompt hunger strikes at Illinois prison

The hunger strikers at Robinson prison succeeded in getting officials to review their cases, two months after WBEZ reported on the sentence credit issue.

Two men incarcerated at Robinson Correctional Facility in downstate Illinois went on hunger strikes earlier this month to protest delays in getting sentence credits they believe would make them eligible for immediate release.

Both men succeeded in getting prison officials to agree to review their cases, after failing to get movement through the traditional channels. Their experiences raise questions about how the Illinois Department of Corrections is handling the possibly hundreds of people behind bars who believe their sentence credits have been improperly calculated but have not resorted to such extreme methods.

A law, HB 3026, that went into effect in January gives some incarcerated individuals time off their sentences for participating in education, work, and other programs, but as previously reported by WBEZ, poor recordkeeping by the Illinois Department of Corrections has made it difficult for many people to get the sentence credits they say they have earned.

Many of the people who stand to benefit the most from the new law have been incarcerated for decades, but the department’s own records only go back to 2010, when the corrections agency switched to a digital system.

Corrections spokesperson Naomi Puzzello previously acknowledged the limited scope of the digital records called “master files” that track everything an incarcerated individual. The master files are the basis for the sentence calculations.

At the time Puzzello said the department would review documentation if people possess evidence that they are entitled to additional credit under the new law. But incarcerated individuals at Robinson report being told by facility administrators that their records would not be reviewed without specific instruction from Springfield.

Puzzello disputed that, writing in an email last week that individual facilities have full authority to award sentencing credits under HB 3026. She said the corrections department is continuing to conduct additional reviews and is working to identify attendance records through multiple sources.

Hunger strikes as a “cry for help”

Bernard Lopez

Bernard “Benny” Lopez, who has been incarcerated since 1993, seen in a photo provided by his family. Lopez went on a 24-hour hunger strike to try and force the Illinois Department of Corrections to review records that he believes merit additional sentence credits.

Provided

Bernard “Benny” Lopez, who has been incarcerated since 1993, refused meals for 24 hours starting on June 10. He requested that administrators at Robinson review records such as his trust fund account, which show payments he received for working in various prison jobs, believing those records will show he is owed additional credits.

Lopez ended his strike on June 11 after prison administrators granted him work release and said they would review the records he submitted to determine if he was eligible for additional time off his sentence under HB 3026, Lopez wrote in an email.

Lester May, who has been incarcerated since 1994, came off a 7-day hunger strike on June 18 after the warden at Robinson promised to review his paperwork, May said.

Lopez and May both believe they would be out of prison now if they had been given all of the sentence credits they have earned over the last three decades they’ve spent in prison. Lopez currently has a projected parole date of July 2026, while May’s is May 2028.

Hunger strikes have a long history as a form of nonviolent protest, both inside and outside of prison, embraced by leaders like Nelson Mandela and Cesar Chavez. In 2000, more than half of the incarcerated individuals at the Tamms Supermax prison in downstate Illinois began a hunger strike protesting treatment of mentally ill prisoners and indefinite solitary confinement, among other conditions of confinement. Three of the strikers went without food for 36 days. More recently, three women at Logan Correction staged a hunger strike in 2021 after their housing unit was flooded with sewage.

May said that after he declared the hunger strike, he was escorted to segregation, where he didn’t have access to his personal property or outside communication such as his tablet. Nursing staff tried to convince him to eat. He had to refuse all of his meals, and remained in segregation until he agreed to eat.

“The only way you can end this is if you tell them you want to eat, they give you a tray, watch you eat it, and then they let you out,” May said.

Puzzello said the corrections department cannot comment on individual hunger strikes due to privacy concerns, but said incarcerated individuals who declare a hunger strike are monitored.

“Physicians determine the necessary medical interventions such as examinations, testing, medical supervisions, or involuntary nourishments,” Puzzello said.

Going on a hunger strike was a last resort, May said. He was desperate to draw attention to an issue that may seem like a bureaucratic process to administrators but for him means his freedom. Everyday his paperwork isn’t reviewed is another day he spends in prison, he said.

“It was the biggest cry for help that I can give,” May said.

Both Lopez and May have tried to get their sentence credits reviewed by going through the administrative grievance process, which allows incarcerated to file complaints that are reviewed by several levels of the prison administration.

“I realized this was my only remaining opportunity of gaining the administration’s full attention,” Lopez wrote.

Lopez said he is happy with the outcome, but said the issue of sentence credits being improperly calculated is a system-wide issue. “The delay in calculating my remaining good-time is bigger than Robinson,” Lopez said.

Richard McConnell was released on April 24 after he was featured in a previous story WBEZ and Open Campus published about the new law. He said he was considering a hunger strike of his own the night before he was informed he would be going home. Carl Rogers and Swavell Toliver, who also spoke to WBEZ for the previous story, said they still have not received all of the credits they believe they are owed.

As of June 14, approximately 1,985 individuals have had their sentencing credits reviewed under HB 3026. Out of those who have received credit, 1,354 are still in custody and 631 individuals were released. One hundred and fifty six of those people have been released since May 1.

Charlotte West is a reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prisons for Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education. Sign up for her newsletter, College Inside.

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