Ex-wardens: Mixing inmate groups a safety risk

Ex-wardens: Mixing inmate groups a safety risk

JOHN O'CONNOR,AP Political Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Andres Hernandez is set to go home in May after serving six months in an Illinois prison for attempting to sell marijuana. Kelsey Swickard is about halfway through a 12-year stretch for robbery and aggravated battery. Convicted murderer Dion Spears would be 93 when he's eligible for parole in 2075.

It's clear why these inmates are sitting it out in prisons with different security stages: the minimum-security East Moline Correctional Center for Hernandez, medium for Swickard at Graham prison in Hillsboro, and Spears at the maximum-level Menard prison in the southern Illinois city of Chester.

But the strict segregation of inmates may become more difficult as the Illinois Department of Corrections struggles with budget cuts that have led to fewer staff members while the prison population jumped — all before the closure of one major prison with another soon to follow.

Gov. Pat Quinn closed Tamms, the high-security lockup at the state's southern tip, which for 15 years exiled gang leaders and violent inmates who caused trouble in general populations. It's too expensive to run in a state with a budget crisis, according to the Democratic governor, who also plans to shutter the Dwight women's penitentiary.

In recent weeks, up to 15 hardcore inmates implicated in a fight at Menard — convicts who might have been shipped to Tamms before its early January closure — instead have been moved to segregation cells at lower-level prisons. And in what an employee union says is in preparation for Dwight's retirement, the department plans to set up temporary housing in medium-security penitentiaries for overflow minimum-security inmates.

Those shifts draw caution flares from former prison administrators whose opinions on the arrangements range from labeling them "wrong" to advising that they will require careful planning and supervision.

"In a housing unit, you've got officers there 24 hours. In the gym, now you'll have to pull from somewhere or you'll have to add employee headcount," said Gerardo Acevedo, who retired just over a year ago as warden of the medium-security Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg. "You have to add more services not only to security, you've got medical, clinical services, you've got more maintenance — wear and tear — all that has to be considered."

Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano called both procedures "temporary" and described them as routine when situations warrant them. The need for temporary space for low-level detainees should "decrease over the coming months," she said, but she disclosed few other details.

"Safety and security is the department's top priority and we will continue to manage the population efficiently and responsibly in order to ensure public safety," Solano said.

Both relocation arrangements — there's no indication they involve inmates Hernandez, Swickard or Spears — came to the fore last week after high-profile, post-Tamms assaults on guards and an inmate death being investigated as a murder. Critics claim violence has increased because of crowding 49,000 inmates into space designed for 33,000, while eliminating the threat of near 'round-the-clock isolation that Tamms held.

On Wednesday, The Associated Press obtained a letter from the prison workers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, worried about the movement of up to 15 hardened prisoners implicated in a Menard melee that injured two guards and a chaplain, to segregated medium-security cells.

It's routine to move troublemakers to show remaining inmates the state means business, and to let angry staff members cool off while an investigation ensues. A year ago, throwing a punch at Menard could earn a trip to Tamms.

But the current setup is safe, said Solano: "Segregation units at all facilities are governed by the same department rules."

Retired DOC administrator George Welborn, the first warden at Tamms when it opened in 1998, said it's not that simple.

"I don't mean to suggest that medium-security segregation units are not secure. They are. But they're certainly run differently," Welborn said. "The most important thing is staff at the medium-security segregation units are not used to dealing on a day-to-day basis with these inmates. They deal with reduced-security inmates."

The day after the complaint about the Menard move, Corrections announced in a letter to AFSCME that gymnasiums in six mostly medium-security prisons would be outfitted with beds to house inmates from unspecified lower-level lockups. AFSCME officials said they were told it was in anticipation of Dwight's mothballing, but Solano did not comment on that.

Steven Ballard, who retired 11 months ago as warden at East Moline, is proud of DOC's historical reputation but calls the temporary housing plans "just wrong." Putting inmates up in gyms raises not only safety issues among potentially short-tempered men who can't use their hotpots and TVs, but sanitation concerns, including whether there are enough showers and toilets to accommodate the newcomers.

And permanent residents — despite Solano's point that dayrooms and outdoor yards are available for recreation — lose their workout areas.

"The purpose of those gymnasiums was for recreational and for program purposes," Ballard said. "You brought them (resident inmates) over so they could get some physical activity when the weather's bad."

Ballard predicted that Corrections effectively will keep inmates in different security echelons separated, but Acevedo suggested mixing is inevitable. He said it will be difficult to keep them separated in the infirmary. A midnight work shift could be reserved for minimum-security prisoners, Acevedo said, but it would be tougher to keep them apart when it comes to educational courses, religious services or even something as simple as buying toothpaste.

"You have mostly medium inmates working there, but the minimum inmate has the right to go to the commissary, so they're going to meet right there," Acevedo said.

The wardens say the shorter the stay, the less concern over problems.

"I don't think this is temporary housing," Ballard said. "I think this is serious. ... They say they're not overcrowded, that's why they're shutting prisons down, but you know what? You can say anything you want to say."


Contact John O'Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor


Online: http://www2.illinois.gov/idoc



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Local Yocal wrote on February 18, 2013 at 9:02 am
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Here's a way to make room in the prisons: release the people convicted of drug crimes now.

Blaming the Democratic Governor for building too many prisons, packing them too full with too many unnecessary convictions, is not accurate. This article is a prison guard-union hack job and does not address the realities of why there is no longer any money for failed policies and money for too many prosecutions from elected state's attorneys, trying to look tough. Prioritize violence and maybe we would have plenty of room in the prisons.   

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 18, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Uhh... that is what unions were established to do. Things like improve health, and "safety" in the workplace.  When they address an issue like safety, you call it a "hack article".  I will buy into your comments on the unnecessary incarceration of some drug offenders.  However, there is no conspiracy between a union protecting it's members, prison guards, and the legal system.  

Why not go to Menard, or another prison as a guest/citizen to observe?  You could have lunch in the dining hall even.

Local Yocal wrote on February 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm
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Perhaps I shouldn't assign motives to the author, but there is no doubt the union is mad regarding Quinn's  closing of facilities and reducing the number of guards needed or changing the workplace such that this reshuffling is occuring, stressing the guards and populations.

The overcrowding is the result of prosecutions and something the prison guards do not discuss when it comes to their work conditions or the effectiveness of their jobs to begin with. It's like farmers shouting, "We must maintain slavery, our livelihoods depend on it!"

What maybe the guards and unions need to be doing is advising the politicians and public how better to offer asylum for offenders, and what the closed facilities could be re-purposed to do. Or how could costs be reduced to maintain the current facilities. Between less incarceration for non-violent offenses, more humane treatment during incarceration, and more productive use of inmate time, like real education (Thank you very little, Bill Clinton), real work, real products coming out of the prisons, perhaps the costs could be offset some. Envisioning actual rehabilitation, real intervention, and real change for inmates; might actually be a way to reduce the costs and get a better bang for the tax dollar.

Instead, we have a 5' X 9' double stack system where we are paying extraordinary amounts of money, over a billion and a half dollars in Illinois to have guards watch people do nothing, and when they get their $100 dollars and a bus ticket out in a few short years, they still need to break into your car to get by since felons are banished from the economy.  

Why not go to Menard? I doubt they give tours to a max facility, Sid, and if they did, I doubt they would risk the legal liability of having a civilian interact with general population without some serious vetting of who gets to interact with the civilian. And even then, most of these institutions do not want it known how barbaric conditions and services are inside the prisons (unless it serves the interests of the guards). More important, they don't want civilians getting interested in many of these legal cases where far more than what is reported, as the Springfield Innonence Project will tell you, are in jail for crimes they did not do. What percentage of the 48,000 are wrongfully convicted? Don't know, but I could easily imagine there are at least 5000 people in those prisons serving time for something they did not do. That's a speculation on my part, and you can disagree to say that number is too high.

But you do see the mess News-Gazette columnist Jim Dey's reporting of the Andre Davis case has become? Just one inmate who was deliberately screwed (since 2004) can be costly and turn public opinion all around to demand prosecutors and police be held accountable for their deliberate kidnappings. I know a few conservatives who believe perjury, falsified police reports, and deliberate concealing evidence of innocence should be prosecuted with the same amount of time the original offender would have received. Right now, perjury is a minor offense, and police and prosecutors enjoy immunity, no matter how malicious and false their actions be.  

Regardless, out of respect for the Holly Cassano family, it is understood that out of the 48,000 inmates there are a small percentage of people who have either sold their soul off, or have done such horrible things that an extended time of punishment and "working it off" is required. What percentage of the 48,000 is that?

To hear some on this site tell it and sometimes the way Miss Mary writes it, you'd think all 48,000 are murderous monsters better off exterminated. Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah,.....wasn't there a fascist government in Germany some time ago thinking along those lines?

The fastest and easiest fix is to release the drug offenders now. Unfortunately, for too many readers of this site, the idea of a drug offender or person sentenced for drug dealing, calls to the imaginative mind the arrogant black man gangsta' rapper coming for your daughter (thank you very little Music and Movie Industry), and so this emotional kindegarten makes releasing the drug offenders beyond the pale,...for some.

If, instead, we're all colorblind and politically correct then, what do you say Beer Drinkers and Cigarette Smokers? Let's get them boys out of prison and back in the 'hood and save us a ton of tax money and give these prison guards a less populated and thus, safer/better place to work. Who's ready to write the State's Attorney and demand it?

I encourage all to attend the talk by Michelle Alexander, author of the best selling book, The New Jim Crow, this Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Illini Union, in rooms A,B,C, at 6:00 p.m. to better understand what the damn drug war has done to the prison guards, the state budgets, to the neighborhoods and to our communities regarding the reduction of crime.

Here are some samplers of what she will talking about:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BSwEYyFu2E      start at the 6:00 minute mark




Sid Saltfork wrote on February 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

The legislators, and governor do not ask the union for suggestions.  That has been obvious in the news over the past years.  The guards do their jobs with reduced numbers of staff, and more inmates.  Recently, a large number of the guards called in sick which created a problem, and resulted in lockdowns.  Whether it was the flu transmitted in a highly congested environment, or a lack of safety demonstration is unknown.  The current situation is not safe for the guards, or the inmates.  Mixing populations makes things worse for the inmates.  I do favor decriminalization of some of the drug laws.  However; the decriminalization is up to the legislators, and governor, not the correctional officers.

I did go on a required, guided tour of Menard when I was a teenager.  We had lunch in the dining hall with spoons also.  In my working career; I visited Pontiac, and the federal facility at Terre Haute.  I once got stuck in a lockdown at Pontiac for a couple of hours before I could go from a guarded area to the gate with an escort.  I have high respect for State of Illinois Correctional Officers.  I don't know if guided citizen tours are still available.  If they are, I would suggest that citizens acquaint themselves with the experience of the incarcerated.  Also, not everyone in are "boys" from "the 'hood".  There are diverse groups spending time.  Don't stare at the shamrock tatoos if you take the tour. 

Local Yocal wrote on February 18, 2013 at 7:02 pm
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You are completely correct, Sid, drug offenders are not just the stereotype "boys from the 'hood" (though drug convictions are disproportionately against African Americans to be sure), and use of the stereotype was catering to my stereotype of News-Gazette readers who stereotype who a drug offender might be,....which does drag the whole conversation down to use of inaccurate stereotypes all around, doesn't it?

Not only did guards take up some sick days, (and who wouldn't working under those conditions) they somehow were able to spend up a lot of health insurance money if memory serves me right about that story.

You're right, legislators make the final call, but the guards should be offering their expertise in better prison design other than "Let's keep them open so I can have a job." Anybody can lobby and educate their legislators about anything, and as yet, I haven't heard enough of the guards lending advice to prosecutors and legislators on how this system could be made better.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 18, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Take a job with the state, and ask where the suggestion box is located.  It is a top down outfit; not bottom up.  Suggestions are greeted with smiles.  They think so much about them that they put them in your 201 jacket with comments like "loose cannon".  Suggestions made outside of the outfit to the union get more change.  Yeah, correctional officers want to keep their jobs.  That means keeping the prisons open.  However, they want more staff since their numbers are diminishing.  The new ones are required to work until age 67 before they can retire.  They know that they will not make it to age 67.  They physically will not be able to perform their job duties.  Take the time to talk to some correctional guards; or other public service employees before you jump to conclusions, and start throwing rocks.

Your concept of input from the employees is good; but it rarely, if ever, happens with the state.  The high administrators, and directors are politically appointed.  Most of them have no, or little, experience doing what their employees do.  They do not ask for suggestions unless it is simply a morale booster for the newbies.  I cannot answer for the prosecutors whose careers are number driven.  I definitely cannot answer for the politicians.  The only thing that I know that works with the legislators, and governors is to pay them off with campaign donations.

Local Yocal wrote on February 18, 2013 at 9:02 pm
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I share your disappointment/disdain for the politicians. Campaign donations/bribes do have influence, and I guess voting them out of office in favor of more enlightened or flexible candidates is not timely enough. How did the politicians get so stupid? Any chance Rep. Bill Black or Sid Saltfork will run for office?

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 19, 2013 at 4:02 am

Both are too old.  Both have too much baggage.  Younger, and wiser candidates are needed.