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The 10 Worst Prisons in Illinois

Illinois has one of the largest prison populations in the United States, with over 30,000 inmates spread across 28 facilities. While some prisons are relatively modern and humane, others are aging, overcrowded and rife with violence and disease. Here we look at the 10 worst prisons in Illinois based on factors like safety, living conditions, and rehabilitation efforts.

1. Menard Correctional Center

Menard is Illinois’ largest maximum security prison, housing over 3,500 inmates. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, the prison opened in 1878 and is notorious for its archaic conditions.

  • Cells are cramped, with poor ventilation, plumbing issues and little access to natural light.
  • The prison is chronically overcrowded, operating at more than 170% capacity.
  • Violence is common, including assaults between inmates and against staff. There are frequent lockdowns due to security issues.
  • Healthcare is substandard, with inmates facing long waits for treatment. Mental health services are lacking.
  • Rehabilitation programs are limited for the large maximum security population. Most inmates at Menard spend years locked in their cells with little productive activity.

With its remote location, aging facilities and violent atmosphere, Menard embodies all that is wrong with maximum security prisons in Illinois. Massive overcrowding only exacerbates these problems, making Menard the state’s worst overall prison.

2. Stateville Correctional Center

Stateville in Crest Hill opened in 1925 and houses over 1,600 maximum security inmates. The prison is known for its harsh conditions:

  • Like Menard, Stateville faces extreme overcrowding at more than 150% capacity. Most inmates are double-celled in very cramped quarters.
  • The Roundhouse is a notorious solitary confinement unit with severe isolation and sparse facilities.
  • Healthcare is poor, exacerbated by understaffing and dated facilities. Mentally ill inmates often go untreated.
  • Violence is a constant issue. There are regular reports of assault among inmates or against staff.
  • Vocational and rehabilitation programs struggle with lack of funding and overcrowding. Most inmates have minimal productive activities.

While not as remote as Menard, Stateville suffers from similar antiquated facilities. Severe overcrowding only makes these conditions worse, creating an environment of tension, danger and misery.

3. Pontiac Correctional Center

Pontiac Correctional Center was built in 1871 and is Illinois’ second oldest prison after Menard. Designed for a capacity of 1,600, it currently houses around 1,700 inmates.

  • Living units, plumbing, and ventilation systems are dated and dilapidated after years of constant use.
  • With tight quarters and lack of facilities, maintaining personal hygiene is a challenge for inmates.
  • Healthcare facilities are basic and understaffed. Accessing medical treatment involves long waits.
  • Rehabilitation programs like education, vocational training and counseling are limited. Idleness leads to boredom, tension and violence among inmates.
  • Gangs have an active presence at Pontiac, intimidating other inmates and fueling an underground economy based on contraband.
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After 150 years, Pontiac’s facilities are antiquated and struggle to meet the needs of its large inmate population. Without expanded vocational programs and improved conditions, rehabilitation is difficult.

4. Pinckneyville Correctional Center

Pinckneyville hosts a population of over 4,000 inmates at a facility designed for just 1,800. Extreme overcrowding creates unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

  • With two inmates per cell, most prisoners have less than 50 square feet of space, making social distancing impossible.
  • Plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems are outdated, often malfunctioning and breaking down.
  • Limited recreation time and programs mean inmates spend most of their days idle in their crowded cells, leading to boredom and aggression.
  • Healthcare facilities can’t meet the needs of the large prison population. Access to medical and mental health treatment is limited.
  • Understaffing, overcrowding and idleness contribute to a dangerous environment with gang activity, contraband issues and assaults.

The chronic overpopulation places strain on Pinckneyville’s outdated facilities, making it one of Illinois’ most crowded and fastest deteriorating prisons.

5. Logan Correctional Center

Logan CC in Lincoln was built in the 1980s to house 1,106 inmates. Its population has since ballooned to over 1,800, nearly 70% over intended capacity. Most prisoners are doubled in 7’ x 11’ cells.

  • Severe overcrowding puts pressure on sanitation, plumbing, and ventilation systems, creating unsafe and unsanitary living conditions.
  • Healthcare facilities and staff can’t meet the needs of the large population. Access to medical treatment is very limited.
  • With just 27 acres for over 1,800 inmates, outdoor space is severely limited. There are few vocational programs and even less recreation time.
  • Understaffing contributes to an unsafe environment. Contraband smuggling and gang activity is common. Assaults against inmates and staff occur regularly.

While a newer facility, the vast overcrowding at Logan CC has created conditions on par with Illinois’ worst and oldest prisons. Without population reduction, rehabilitation is severely hampered.

6. Shawnee Correctional Center

Shawnee CC in Vienna has a maximum capacity of 1,660 inmates but currently houses over 2,000 prisoners. The prison faces overcrowding issues similar to others on this list:

  • prisoners are doubled in small, cramped cells lacking adequate facilities and ventilation
  • limited access to healthcare and mental health services
  • high tensions due to boredom and inactivity
  • presence of gangs and contraband
  • assaults and violence between inmates and against guards

Shawnee has the added issues of its remote, rural location. Isolation from families makes rehabilitation and reentry more difficult. Lack of staff also contributes to an unsafe environment for inmates.

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7. Vandalia Correctional Center

Vandalia CC, built in 1921, is designed to hold 1,500 inmates. Its population sits around 1,800, operating at over 150% capacity.

  • Ancient plumbing regularly fails, with leaky, moldy pipes and backed up sewage.
  • Due to a condemned housing unit, many inmates crowd into converted common areas and recreation areas.
  • Healthcare facilities are outdated and understaffed. Access to doctors is extremely limited.
  • With just 27 acres, recreational space is scarce. Vocational and rehabilitation programs are limited.
  • Assaults, gang violence and contraband issues plague the crowded, tense environment.

After a century of constant operation, Vandalia’s decrepit facilities can no longer adequately house inmates. Severe overcrowding exacerbates these issues, creating hazardous living conditions and roadblocks to rehabilitation.

8. Hill Correctional Center

Hill CC in Galesburg was built in the 1980s to hold 1,300 minimum and medium security inmates. The population today stands at over 1,500 prisoners.

  • Two-man cells measure just 69 square feet, promoting tension and aggression between cellmates.
  • Severe overcrowding taxes resources like plumbing, laundry and kitchen facilities. Equipment breakdowns are common.
  • Medical facilities can’t meet demand. Treatment involves long waits and inadequate care.
  • With the population exceeding capacity by 15%, recreational space is lacking. Vocational and rehabilitation programs are limited.
  • Staffing shortages lead to safety issues like increased gang activity and contraband smuggling. Assaults are common.


PrisonCapacityPopulationOvercrowding %
Menard Correctional Center3,6586,299172%
Stateville Correctional Center1,5243,397223%
Pontiac Correctional Center1,6131,696105%
Pinckneyville Correctional Center1,8214,137227%
Logan Correctional Center1,1061,987180%
Shawnee Correctional Center1,6602,094126%
Vandalia Correctional Center1,5001,902127%
Hill Correctional Center1,3001,665128%

While one of the newer prisons, overcrowding negates many of Hill CC’s modern design advantages. Limited programming space and lack of staff supervision contribute to an environment ripe for violence and misconduct.

9. Big Muddy River Correctional Center

Big Muddy in Ina has capacity for 1,500 inmates but currently holds over 2,000. The prison faces issues consistent with other overpopulated facilities:

  • Two inmates to a cell increases violence and sanitation issues.
  • Lack of staff allows contraband smuggling and gang activities to thrive.
  • Severe overcrowding taxes old plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems.
  • Access to medical care and mental health services is very limited.
  • With the population at 133% capacity, vocational and rehabilitation facilities are inadequate.

Big Muddy’s location in southern Illinois makes visitation difficult for most families, isolating inmates from outside support. Designed as a minimum security prison, Big Muddy’s overpopulation by maximum security inmates contributes to a violent powder keg within its fences.

10. Danville Correctional Center

Danville CC was designed to hold 1,300 inmates but has become chronically overcrowded, approaching 1,700 prisoners.

  • Nearly 200 inmates are forced to live in laundries, kitchens, and other makeshift areas not designed for housing.
  • Plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems are outdated and overtaxed.
  • Medical facilities are shared with the adjacent women’s prison, with inmates facing long waits for inadequate care.
  • Staff shortages lead to lack of inmate supervision, allowing gangs and drugs to proliferate.
  • Assaults and violence between inmates are commonplace due to chronic idleness, tension and instability.
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While Danville CC lacks the dire reputations of some maximum security prisons, its overcrowding creates an environment ripe for instability, violence, and ineffective rehabilitation. It exemplifies the crisis of overpopulation facing the Illinois prison system.


Illinois’ aging prisons suffer from inadequate facilities, chronic overcrowding, and lack of programming space to provide vocational, educational and mental health treatment. With little to occupy inmates’ time, boredom, gang activity and violence thrive. Staff shortages only exacerbate these problems.

Without major changes, Illinois’ antiquated, overcrowded prisons will continue to endanger inmates, staff and the public. Reducing prison populations to humane levels is an essential first step. New facilities and programming can then provide conditions for effective rehabilitation, safety and successful reentry. With common-sense reforms, even Illinois’ most notorious prisons can become places where inmates learn skills, change behaviors and prepare for constructive, law-abiding lives after release.

Frequently Asked Questions about Illinois Prisons

What are the main problems with prisons in Illinois?

The main problems are overcrowding, outdated facilities, lack of programming/activities for inmates, inadequate healthcare, understaffing, and gang violence. Most facilities were built decades ago and can’t humanely support their current populations.

Why are Illinois prisons so overcrowded?

Main reasons for overcrowding include harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws, eliminating parole, the War on Drugs, mental illness, and lack of community resources/reentry support. The state has not constructed new prisons or expanded facilities fast enough to keep up with its rapidly growing inmate population.

How does overcrowding affect prisons?

Overcrowding makes conditions unsafe and inhumane for both inmates and staff. It strains utilities like plumbing and electricity. It leads to lack of resources and activities for prisoners. Tensions rise, resulting in more violence. Contraband and gangs also thrive. Healthcare is inadequate to meet needs.

What is being done to fix these problems?

There have been some criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing incarceration of nonviolent offenders. Some facilities got funding to expand. But expanded rehabilitation and reentry programs are needed. Building new, modern prisons would help long-term but takes major funding. The state still struggles with overcrowding and decaying infrastructure.

Which are considered the worst prisons in Illinois?

Menard, Stateville, and Pontiac are generally named as Illinois’ oldest and most hazardous maximum security prisons. Due to extreme overcrowding, Logan, Shawnee, Vienna, and Pinckneyville also get noted as unsafe. Prisons built decades ago like Menard and Stateville tend to have the worst reputations.

How can conditions and safety be improved?

Reducing inmate populations through parole, diversion programs, sentence reform would alleviate crowding issues. Staff training and hiring more guards would help. Upgrading facilities and more vocational/rehab programs would make prisoners less idle. But expanding and constructing new prisons requires huge taxpayer investment. It ultimately comes down to budget priorities.

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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