Prisoners at an Illinois Department of Corrections facility in Joliet suffer through nightmare living conditions, with rat-infested cells, rotten food and raw sewage overflowing into common areas, a lawsuit says.
The suit, which is asking to be granted class-action status, was filed Thursday against top officials of the Northern Reception and Classification Center. It says they have violated the constitutional rights of the estimated 1,000 people incarcerated there.
Living spaces and common areas are infested with mice, rats, birds and insects, according to the suit filed against warden David Gomez and Rob Jeffreys, the facility’s director, who are accused of having allowed inhumane conditions to develop and ignored pleas to act.
“Mice run in and out of cells all night long. Cockroaches crawl up the walls, crawl into bedding and bury themselves in commissary items. Gnats and flies swarm the pools of flooded water in common shower areas,” according to the lawsuit, filed by the Uptown People’s Law Center and Jenner & Block.
Winter is when the vermin problem is at its worst, as more mice and rats come inside to escape the cold, the lawsuit says. The sound of running mice echoes through the cells at night, according to the lawsuit, disrupting prisoners’ sleep.
“Within the confines of their cells, prisoners have no escape from the bugs and mice that crawl, scurry and burrow in every corner,” the lawsuit said. “This sense of helplessness, on a day-to-day basis, degrades the psychological health of all prisoners who experience it.”
The Northern Reception and Classification Center is an adult male intake and processing unit for the entire Department of Correction system. Prisoners stay there while awaiting transfer to a permanent institution, but there is no limit on how long that can take.
The facility has 1,800 beds and 24 housing units.
“Entering prison is always going to be a shock,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. “But forcing people to endure infestation by vermin, undrinkable water and extended solitary confinement when they first enter Illinois’ prison system is unacceptable and serves no legitimate purpose.”
The lawsuit also claims prisoners are living with unsafe water and deficient plumbing. Faucets at sinks inside the cells often don’t work — and when they do, they sometimes dispense brown water that smells like sewage.
Likewise, toilets in the cells sometimes have no water and other times overflow or back up into sinks — “where prisoners are supposed to get their drinking water, brush their teeth and wash their hands.”
Prisoners often use their own clothing or towels to clean up, the lawsuit alleges, and those soiled items are never replaced.
The Illinois Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
There are also allegations of prisoners being fed only spoiled food that sometimes makes them ill.
“Prisoners who do eat the food are routinely forced to eat around moldy, rotten patches of food,” according to the lawsuit.
Another problem cited in the lawsuit is lack of “yard time” for prisoners. Since November 2021, according to the lawsuit, prisoners at the facility have had no out-of-cell time — and the cells often are too small to exercise.
“Prison officials have known how bad the conditions are for years, but they’ve chosen to ignore the situation and shuffle prisoners along in the penal system,” said Ben Bradford, an attorney with Jenner & Block. “We want to shine a light on the inhumane conditions at the Northern Reception Center; it’s time to amplify prisoners’ voices and force change at this facility.”