In a series of statements laden with supportive statistics, Kane County correctional officers said Tuesday conditions at the county jail are so bad the community should fear for its safety.
For proof, they said, look no further than the hostage situation a county inmate created at Delnor Hospital last May. Increasing the number of officers at the jail is the only way to avoid more incidents in the future, they said.
The county's head elected official is skeptical about the danger.
Correctional officers said the jail is so understaffed it is common practice to have a single officer supervising up to 128 inmates. In October, inmates beat and strangled an officer who had no immediate backup because other officers could not leave their posts.
"I've always known someone had my back or help was on the way," said Blythe Miller, a 17-year jail employee. "Lately, I cannot say the same. If we'd had proper staffing, the Delnor incident never would have happened, and the county wouldn't be paying out so much money in unnecessary lawsuits.
"If something isn't done, then more horrific incidents are going to happen, and you guys can just keep adding zeros to the amounts already being paid out."
The Delnor hostage situation involved an unshackled inmate taking a gun from the lone jail officer providing security. The inmate then beat and raped a nurse during a standoff that lasted several hours. Two nurses filed a federal lawsuit against the guard, the county and hospital security.
The officers who spoke Tuesday, and the attorney who represents them during union contract negotiations, referenced Illinois Department of Corrections jail inspection reports. One, from 2010, states the jail needs 128 officers to be safe. As of Nov. 1, there were 116 officers. There have been 30 lockdowns since Dec. 1.
The county board authorizes Sheriff Don Kramer to have 124 officers. But filling the vacancies has run into conflict with Kramer's budget. He's kept his books in the black, in part, by keeping positions unfilled.
In an interview, Kramer said even when he's moved to fill jobs he's run into problems. The word is out, he said, that Kane County offers the lowest pay and the highest ratio of inmates to officers of any of the collar counties.
Kramer said officers routinely leave Kane County to go work at the jail in DeKalb County because the pay and workload is better.
"For the last three years I've been saying we're violating county jail standards," Kramer said. "Sometimes at night, we've got one guy watching one whole floor. We open a door between two cell blocks, so one person is watching two cell blocks. I don't like it. I don't think it's safe. This is when the inmates are sleeping. But when that door is open it's one person watching 128 people. It's ridiculous. What happens when something goes bad? What's the response time? I can tell you it's not going to be good."
Kramer said providing backup with current manpower is difficult because half the jail contains eight-person cells that need constant monitoring.
"What happens when you put eight people in a cell, and the rest of them don't like one person?" Kramer said. "If you leave to go help someone you might come back and find that one person half dead. The jail was poorly engineered."
Kramer said there's only one thing that can improve the situation: more officers. That takes money. Kramer said the county board wants the money to come from him.
"They want me to charge the inmates for their incarceration," Kramer said. "These people have no money. There's nothing there to get."
Getting the money out of the county board may be just as difficult.
County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen pointed to the most recent jail inspection report by the Illinois Department of Corrections. He said in the section that measures whether there was enough officers at the jail, the inspectors checked "yes." Lauzen also said the county increased its spending at the jail by $4 million over the last four years.
"It is very important that you've been respectfully heard," Lauzen told the officers. "It's also important for the board to recognize part of what's happened the last four years is we've made substantially higher expenditures in public safety."
In perhaps the clearest demonstration of a reluctance to dedicate more money to Kramer's budget, the county board refused Tuesday to earmark any savings for a new medical services contract for jail inmates. The service is required by law.
The lowest bidder for the contract presents a $343,000 increase. The county board told Kramer to try to find the money in his own budget to cover the increase. If he can't, they might consider a budget adjustment toward the end of the year.