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Mass incarceration is a uniquely American problem — and Illinois is no exception. Nearly 30,000 people are imprisoned in the state, four times as many as in 1971.

That number, though jarring, is only part of the problem. The driver of mass incarceration is not merely the number of people in prison, but how long they spend there. Since the mid-1980s, the number of people in Illinois serving life or de facto life sentences has quadrupled. 

The meteoric expansion of incarceration is not due to an increase in crime. In fact, Illinois for years continued to trap an increasing number of people behind bars even as crime rates fell. 

Instead, the drastic expansion of incarceration is thanks to the advent of harsh sentencing guidelines, which kept people imprisoned longer, and truth in sentencing, which requires people to serve a greater portion of their sentence. 

As prison terms grew longer, policymakers slammed the door shut and threw away the key. They eliminated parole, and the use of clemency, once a quotidian part of the governor’s duties, slowed to a near standstill.

We’re at a turning point. Prisons are filled with people staying longer and getting older. And with no way out, thousands face the prospect that they may never step foot outside a prison again. 

At the Illinois Prison Project, we bring hope to and fight in community with incarcerated people and their loved ones for a brighter, more humane, more just system for us all.

In three years, we’ve freed almost 90 people, changed state laws to create new pathways out of prison for terminally ill and seriously disabled people, and educated tens of thousands of people about the injustices rife within the legal system.

But our work is only possible with your support! Your donation today brings an incarcerated person closer to freedom.

  • Christopher C. was sentenced to life in prison for a series of gas stations robberies. Though no one was physically harmed, and he stole the money to support his addiction, the judge nonetheless handed down a natural life sentence. Give now to support Christopher and others like him trapped behind bars under Illinois' draconian three strikes law.
  • Lawrence G. turned to drugs and alcohol to medicate years of childhood abuse, trauma from his time in the military, and undiagnosed depression and anxiety. Now more than two decades into a 30-year prison sentence for killing someone in self defense, Lawrence has taken every opportunity to demonstrate he’s more than the sum of his single worst mistake. Give now to support Lawrence and other incarcerated veterans.
  • Herman T. was first incarcerated at 20 years old. Despite a documented history of mental illness, prison staff kept Herman in solitary confinement for more than two decades. The unbearable isolation weighed on Herman. When he began to act out, a natural response to prolonged torture, the state responded in force, repeatedly prosecuting him with a new felony charge. In total, Herman was prosecuted seven times, resulting in 56 years of unnecessary time. Give now to support Herman and other survivors of solitary confinement.
  • David F. experienced headaches, blurred vision, balance problems and memory loss. Though a doctor suggested the symptoms were indicative of a brain tumor, David received only ibuprofen and vitamins for more than a year. By the time surgeons removed the lump from his brain, the usually slow-growing tumor had swelled to the size of an apple. The negligent care left him with irreversible health complications. Give now to support David and other incarcerated people with terminal illnesses and serious disabilities.

Click the links below to learn more about our clemency campaigns — and the people we represent. Give now and support our fight against regressive policies, racist practices and a system that treats people as disposable.