Corey Taylor, an incarcerated person at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois, is still waiting on reduced sentence credits. More than a year after the Illinois state legislature passed a bill to lower the state’s prison population, Taylor is among hundreds of people across the state who claim their requests are being ignored by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).
“With the restoration of good conduct credits, my outdate changes from 2032 to 2024,” said Taylor, who was sentenced to 65 years in 1991, when he was 18 years old. “Then, with the award for college attendance, job assignments, and rehabilitative/behavior modification programs, I am eligible for immediate release.”
The SAFE-T Act was signed into law in January 2021, enacting sweeping criminal legal reforms such as eliminating cash bail and establishing a new process to decertify cops. While the legislation was mainly focused on pre-trial reforms, a small part of the bill gave incarcerated people a new pathway to release. The day the law went into effect, on July 1, 2021, at Hill Correctional Center (Hill CC), dozens immediately filed for the Earned Program Sentence Credits (EPSC) and Earned Discretionary Sentence Credits (EDSC) to which they were newly entitled.
The reform expanded opportunities to earn “good time” credits, allowing people with certain convictions to earn a full day of credit for every day spent working, instead of half a day. People serving a sentence of less than five years could be awarded up to 180 days of EDSC, and people serving a sentence of five or more years could be awarded up to 365 days. Earned program credits are awarded for the completion of programs, while earned discretionary credits can be awarded at the IDOC director’s discretion, allowing incarcerated people to be released from prison earlier than their original sentences.
While the reform initially provided some hope, incarcerated people say the approval process for receiving reduced sentence credits can take months—if they hear back at all.
“I was eligible to go home as soon as the bill was made effective,” said Anthony Spaulding, who was paroled from Hill CC in May after 25 years of incarceration. “I sent over 10 copies [of my submission] and they still wouldn’t respond. I was so frustrated because I had resources ready for me. I had housing, a scholarship, a job. I should’ve been home.”
While there is no specific timeframe in which applications for credits must be reviewed, two incarcerated people at Hill CC claimed they could be released immediately if their credits were approved, and eight others said they have been subjected to arbitrary administrative barriers.
Incarcerated paralegal Doiakah Gray told Prism that in November 2021, he had a conversation with Hill CC’s Clinical Services Supervisor Chad A. Schuldt—who’s responsible for approving good time credits—in which he said Schuldt expressed a belief that criminal legal reform was increasing crime, and “refused to release criminals into the street.”
In a written response to Gray that has been reviewed by Prism, Schuldt said the comments were inaccurate and that his “personal opinion has no bearing on the eligibility of whether someone meets the criteria for award or not.” He also concluded that Gray’s submission did not meet the criteria for awarding credits, and no further review was warranted.
Gray subsequently filed a grievance against Schuldt for retaliation and an “inordinate delay” in processing his credit request in the same month. In December 2021, Schuldt responded to Gray, “It does appear you are eligible for HB 0094 credits,” followed by a form response again delaying the review of Gray’s HB 3653 credits.
“All the retroactive good time requests at Hill are being held up by one man who has criminal justice reform reservations,” Gray said, reflecting on what he says has been a long and frustrating process. “His personal concerns are preventing me and others from moving forward in our incarceration and planning our life after decades in prisons.”
In an email to Prism, an IDOC spokesperson claimed there are currently no individuals with pending EDSC or EPSC requests at Hill CC, and said that IDOC continues to award credits in compliance with applicable laws.
“The Department has provided FAQs and sought out the assistance of outside organizations to aid with explaining the process to individuals in custody,” the spokesperson said. “Statewide, total awards of EDSC and EPSC have continued to increase since 2019.”
However, advocates claim that credits are unevenly applied statewide. Julie Anderson, the outreach director at Restore Justice Illinois, recalled when her son Eric took a paralegal course that granted him six months in good time credits at Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, Illinois.
After he received his certificate, Anderson said IDOC decided there was an issue with the way the course was administered and would not grant future students credits. Illinois River refused to award Eric’s credits even though he had completed the course prior to the change, but once he transferred to Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, he was immediately granted six months for the course.
“It’s a statewide problem. Each facility does what it wants and it’s not uniform,” Anderson said. “I have heard of other facilities where they just ignore and then wait for you to write grievances. All of this takes a lot of time.”
Not only are rules unevenly applied, but incarcerated people and advocates say access to credit-granting programs is severely limited and varies by institution. Maximum-security prisons typically have less programming options than medium- and low-security prisons, and when programming is available, priority is given to people with shorter sentences who will soon be released.
While the concept of earning and receiving credits seems simple, Lindsey Hammond, the policy director at Restore Justice Illinois, says the process is incredibly complicated for incarcerated people and their families to navigate.
“Every couple of years there’s a new law that changes one group’s or everyone’s ability to earn in a little way,” Hammond said. “It’s a maze of laws that have all been jumbled on top of each other, so just understanding what somebody might be entitled to as a legal matter is a huge undertaking.”
Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus who backed the SAFE-T Act, says he receives mail and phone calls from family members and people who are waiting for sentence credits to be added to their record.
“The legislative intent is to make sure we reduce our prison population in Illinois,” Ford said. “We found that the majority of the prison population should not still be incarcerated and some have been oversentenced. I’ve been working with the Department of Corrections to see how we can speed this process up and make sure that the state actually lives up to its responsibility and the intent of the law.”
Jennifer Soble, the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, acknowledges that the system of earning and receiving reduced sentence credits is one of many approaches to harm mitigation, but says that buying into the idea of prison as a rehabilitative system, where labor and certificates can be exchanged for freedom, is damaging.
“It’s extraordinarily important for these systems to be transparent and fair. There’s lots of skepticism about whether prisons do rehabilitative work or ever could, and it really undermines the system as a whole to have credit, rehabilitation, and recognition hijacked by people within the Department of Corrections.”
This article was produced in partnership with Just Media, a national hub supporting young writers covering justice issues.