State prison workers, unions say violence is up
SPRINGFIELD -- As Illinois prison officials grapple with shrunken budgets, overcrowding and the governor's plans to close some facilities, they also are dealing with disturbing reports of recent violence in state prisons which have injured guards and an inmate, and a case where two prisoners reportedly overdosed on heroin, The Associated Press has learned.
Among the incidents in the past six weeks, a Stateville Correctional Center inmate was stabbed nine times in a dispute and an inmate stabbed a guard at another maximum-security lockup at Pontiac, according to Department of Corrections information and interviews after the AP received tips.
Prison workers and their union believe the incidents represent an uptick of trouble inside Illinois penitentiaries, which many say have been overcrowded and understaffed for years.
Some cite the incidents to bolster the case against Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to close the Tamms "supermax" prison in far southern Illinois, which is reserved for troublemakers from other prisons. Lawmakers critical of the governor have predicted that taking away the Tamms threat will embolden instigators of violence and gang leaders.
State corrections officials reject any connection between the Tamms decision and behavior in other lockups, and insist that the current prison population can be managed safely and securely. But the incidents also worry prison reform advocates, including some who support the closing of Tamms for other reasons.
"People are stressed. Inmates are stressed. Staff is stressed," said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group. "If the governor is going to close facilities, it needs to be coupled with significant reform to reduce the prison population."
The state could not immediately produce statistics to show whether the half dozen incidents represent an increase. Union officials say they are trying to compile their own numbers.
Following up on tips, the AP turned up a number of violent or drug-related incidents in the past six weeks, including:
• May 26: An inmate at Pontiac used a "self-made plastic weapon" to assault a correctional officer, according to Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano. The officer was treated at a hospital, released the same day and is back at work. Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most Corrections workers, said the officer suffered a puncture wound and an elbow injury.
• June 3: Two inmates at the maximum-security Menard prison in far southern Illinois attacked a guard, an incident first reported by the (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan. The AP reported later that week that a shakedown following the assault turned up 21 hidden weapons in inmates' cells, according to Kevin Hirsch, president of the Menard workers' union local. Solano said 13 weapons were discovered.
• June 10: Stateville staff members found two inmates unresponsive in the cell they shared, according to Solano. They were treated at a hospital and returned to prison the next day, she said, adding that she could not comment further because an investigation continues. Lindall said corrections officials told AFSCME that the prisoners had taken overdoses of heroin. Officials did not immediately have other details, including how the inmates were able to get drugs into the prison.
• Late June: A correctional sergeant at the Vienna prison was punched by an inmate when he intervened in an argument between the prisoner and another officer, according to the local union president, Lt. Mike Turner. The sergeant suffered a shoulder injury and has been off work since, Turner said.
• June 29: During a fight at Stateville, one inmate stabbed another nine times in a cell, injuries that required hospital treatment, but neither Lindall nor the Stateville union president, Ralph Portwood, had other details.
Trying to publicize the incidents no doubt might help the campaign to keep Tamms open, raising questions about how to punish disorderly inmates with no threat of Tamms isolation. But the AP was notified of a number of previously unreported incidents by sources other than AFSCME officials, who were initially unaware themselves of some of the cases.
AFSCME's Lindall said the union is trying to catalog all recent assaults because of "the administration's troubling failure to acknowledge the seriousness of these threats" while Quinn moves forward with plans to close Tamms, a women's prison at Dwight and three halfway houses.
"These incidents underscore our repeated concerns that while the administration spends its time and effort trying to justify unjustifiable facility closures, its inattention to operations is compromising safety, putting employees, inmates and the public at risk," Lindall said.
The state has taken some steps to reduce prison population. Quinn recently signed a law creating a new program for releasing well-behaved inmates early. He halted a similar program in 2009 after reports that it was being used to shuffle prisoners out within weeks.
Kayce Ataiyero, a Corrections spokeswoman, pointed out the prison population is down from just over 49,000 last fall "and we believe that the current population can be managed safely and securely."
"The department's primary focus has been and will continue to be the safe and secure operation of the prisons," Ataiyero said. "There is absolutely no connection between the announcement of the closure of Tamms and inmate behavior or the occurrence of incidents in the other prisons."