By Carl Rogers’ calculations, he should be out of prison now.

But the Illinois Department of Corrections says his expected release date is in 2027.

Rogers is one of many people in Illinois prisons who believe they are not getting the full sentence reductions allowed under a new law that gives new credits for participating in education, work, and other programs. 

As many as 1,000 people who are still in custody could be eligible for immediate release if they received proper sentence recalculations, according to Alan Mills, executive director of the civil rights law firm Uptown People’s Law Center. 

There are inconsistencies in how the law is being applied at different facilities and poor recordkeeping. Meanwhile, a lack of transparency in how prison staff are calculating sentence credits has further complicated efforts by people inside to make sure they are getting appropriate credit for the work and education they’ve completed.

Many of the records used to recalculate people’s sentences only go back to when the corrections department switched to a new digital information system in 2010. But most of the people like Rogers who would benefit from the new law have been incarcerated since the 1990s.

The law, which took effect in January, builds on 2021 criminal justice reforms that increased the amount of credit someone could earn for participating in programs behind bars.  

The new law allows people to earn a day off their sentence for every day prior to 2021 they worked in a correctional industry job or participated in substance abuse programs, education, life skills courses or reentry planning. People inside had previously been allowed to earn half a day off for those activities, and the new law requires the corrections department to recalculate credits already awarded to now provide the full-day credit. 

Illinois state Senator Robert Peters, the bill sponsor, wrote in an email that the law is also supposed to retroactively grant people a half day credit for participation in self-improvement programs, volunteer work, and some work assignments that they had not previously received credit for. 

Incarcerated individuals, their lawyers and prison staff are confused about how the Illinois Department of Corrections is recalculating sentences. Memos the department issued to the prison population in October and January seem to have conflicting information about how the law should be interpreted. Lawyers say they are unclear why their clients are still in prison. 

As of March 21, 1,750 individuals had received earned time through the new law, according to the state. Of those, 1,341 were still in custody and 409 have been released.

Peters said he empathized with the frustration of people inside at the slow adoption of the law, but preached patience as the state goes through “a period of implementation and refinement to address operational challenges.”

Many people in prison are still waiting to understand what the new law means for them. 

Poor record keeping

Rogers, who is currently incarcerated at Robinson Correctional Center, received a 55-year sentence in 1993. In February, he was informed he was eligible for 1,011 days off his sentence – a little less than three years. 

But the records used to calculate how much credit Rogers had earned only go back until 2010, according to documents reviewed by Open Campus. His new release date does not appear to take into account more than a decade of work and educational history. 

The corrections department is supposed to keep records of everything people do behind bars, but several people who requested a copy of their master file summary – a document that is supposed to track everything they’ve done over their entire incarceration – told Open Campus that the information contained there only dated back to 2010. 

Open Campus has examined four master file summaries that only show programming and work for the past 14 years.

Richard McConnell, who has been incarcerated since 1994, has disciplinary records that go back to 1998 in his master file. But his work and programming history only go back to 2010.

To show the missing work history in his master file, McConnell requested records from his prison trust fund account in order to show wages from a job in prison industries dating back to 1995. But even those records are incomplete. 

Richard McConnell’s request for his trust fund records from 1994 through 2010. The Illinois Department of Corrections only had records back to 1997.

In July 2023, he submitted a handwritten request for additional trust fund records showing his work history from 1994 to 1997. The response he received back was a note scrawled on the bottom of his letter: “We only have from 1997.”

Open Campus submitted a copy of McConnell’s records to the corrections department for review. Naomi Puzzello, a department spokesperson, did not respond to a question about whether McConnell’s sentence credits should be recalculated, stating that she was unable to comment on a specific individual’s record. 

Puzzello said individuals who disagree with the amount of time they were awarded should submit a written request to their counselor asking for an explanation or file a grievance, the administrative process incarcerated people can use to file complaints. It’s a three-step appeal process that can take weeks or months, ending with review by a committee in Springfield. 

Puzzello acknowledged that “the assignment history within a master file is limited in scope.” She said the department would review documentation if people possess evidence that they deserve additional credit under the new law. 

The law states that the department should also award credits based on affidavits or documentation from incarcerated people indicating that they engaged in full-time programming or work assignments. 

Major equity concerns

Candace Chambliss, legal director of the Illinois Prison Project, said her organization identified 10 people who should have been eligible for immediate release when the law went into effect on January 1. Of those 10, five have gone home. 

The Illinois Prison Project represents people for clemency, resentencing and other post-conviction issues. 

“When this bill was passed, we thought that this should be a faster route to get people out,” Chambliss said. “We thought we would be in a position of having to do reentry for many of our clients. And unfortunately, that is not the case because the law has not been fairly applied.”

Chambliss said there is great variety in how different prisons within Illinois are recalculating sentences. There are major equity concerns when there are “wildly different applications” of the law with little explanation, she said. 

She has two clients who have very similar profiles. Both have more than two decades of work and programming, including participating in college classes and the same life skills class at the same facility. One of them is home, and the other is still incarcerated.

The biggest difference was where they were locked up when the new law took effect. 

In anticipation of the Jan 1 law coming into effect, Chambliss ordered copies of master files for both clients. When she saw that the files didn’t reflect work or programming before 2010, she submitted a letter to the department’s chief of programs in December 2023 along with financial records and certificates her clients, Andrew Suh and Swavell Toliver, had saved. 

Suh, who was at Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, was initially told in early January that he had about 4.5 years left to serve. But after working with prison staff, including the warden, he was told they had found enough credits. He learned on a Wednesday that he was going home on Friday. 

Suh, who was originally sentenced to 100 years in 1994, was released on January 26. 

Toliver, in contrast, is still incarcerated at Dixon Correctional Center on a 69-year sentence. 

That’s despite help from Chambliss, and documentation showing the department had undercounted his sentence credits. He currently has a release date in October 2028. 

“They were just finding more reasons and ways to tell us, ‘You’re not gonna get it.’ And we’re still here because of it,” Toliver said. 

A copy of a grievance report Richard McConnell filed regarding the award of earned credits under a new law that went into effect in January. The grievance officer at McConnell’s prison, Robinson Correctional Center, noted that the facility was calculating credits based on the information in the master file, a report that contains information about programming and work assignments. McConnell’s master file only goes back to 2010 and he’s been incarcerated since 1994.

Even people with lawyers are not getting much movement at many other facilities, Chambliss said. Some said they are being told prison staff are unable to award credit for programs that are not listed in their master file because the DOC headquarters in Springfield determines eligibility. 

Puzzello said that the corrections department is not aware of concerns related to consistency of implementation across facilities. Staff across the department met months before the law took effect to try to make sure questions related to the process were answered and recalculations occurred quickly after January 1.

A lack of transparency

Another challenge for people inside is the limited view they often have into what’s getting counted or not. Prison staff do sentence recalculations by hand on paper, indicating the number of days someone has earned. But the sheets do not always list which work assignment or program the person is being given credit for. Open Campus reviewed several recalculation sheets, some of which had a general note such as “work” or “education,” but no dates of participation or program name. 

Toliver Swavell’s sentence calculation worksheet from January 11. The recalculations do not detail which programs people are receiving earned credit for.

It’s hard to challenge recalculations when people don’t even know what they’re being given credit for, Rogers and others said. 

Most of the people who would benefit from the new law have spent decades working, going to school, and doing other programming. They are part of a population who is among the least likely to reoffend, according to several studies. 

“These are the folks that have the most programming, the most positive work history,” Chambliss said. “And they’re still in prison.” 

For the people who are left waiting, the uncertainty is taxing.  

“The system as a whole is not honoring what the law says,” Toliver said. “You’re told you’re going home after all of these decades, You start to come back to life a little…And then you’re told you’re not. For these people to be playing the kind of games that they’re playing with our lives, with our family’s hearts, the only thing that you can compare it to is pure torture.”

This story was co-published by WBEZ Chicago.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.