Feds may pull inmates from Ill. county jail over safety concerns
A recent study described the jail as a "facility on edge" because of years of staffing cuts
By Kevin Haas
Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD, Ill. — The U.S. Marshal's Service has threatened to relocate federal inmates housed at the Winnebago County Jail over safety concerns raised in an independent study.
The study, conducted by Savage Corrections Consulting in early January and sent to County Board members late last week, described the jail as a "facility on edge" because of years of staffing cuts.
On Wednesday, Jason Wojdylo, acting chief deputy U.S. Marshal, sent a letter to Sheriff Gary Caruana and County Board Chairman Frank Haney asking for a full copy of the report, a written plan for addressing inadequate staffing and for a time to meet on March 13 to discuss the plan.
"The alternative will leave me with little choice but to relocate the federal prisoner population back to surrounding counties," Wojdylo wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the Register Star.
At risk for the county is approximately $1.9 million in annual revenue the U.S. Marshal pays to have inmates housed in Winnebago County, according to the letter. About 65 of the roughly 780 inmates inside the county jail on a given day are held on behalf of the federal government. The county receives $80 per day, per inmate for holding those prisoners.
"We just can't afford as a county to lose that type of revenue," said County Board member Aaron Booker, chairman of the Public Safety Committee. County Board members were sent a copy of the U.S. Marshal's letter Wednesday night.
Booker said the U.S. Marshal's letter adds urgency to the need to address staffing shortages in the jail.
"I've been warning the board for the last two years of the situation," Booker said. "I've been stressing, as the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, that the board should not cut the sheriff's budget. Our No. 1 priority as any county government entity is to provide public safety. That includes inmates and our corrections staff."
Wojdylo says in his letter that he has not seen the full report from Savage, but is concerned by the Register Star's report, which published Sunday, about the study.
The study calls for hiring 66 people in the jail, including thee civilian employees to handle administrative duties, cash management and other tasks that are currently being done by officers and command staff, taking them away from other duties. The 1,324-bed jail has about 50 fewer officers — a 21% reduction — than it did upon opening in 2007, even though its daily inmate population has grown by 17%.
The study also takes issue with the hours inmates spend on lockdown and the lack of privacy while inmates are interviewed during booking, both of which are a symptom of low staff levels. The report says the facility is clean and well-managed and inmates are mostly well-behaved, but it said there are potential safety issues unless staffing issues are addressed.
It says the number of employees needed is similar to the staff levels when the jail opened, and says money saved on staffing cuts are minimal compared to what potential litigation could cost if the county doesn't address the issue and someone gets hurt. "Most importantly, it is the right thing to do in the interest of the safety, accountability, and welfare of the public, staff, and inmates," the report states.
"One of the biggest priorities of the sheriff and the jail is to make sure that everyone is safe, including our regularly housed state prisoners and federal prisoners," Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond said Wednesday. "We'll continue to maintain that to the best of our ability and we're happy to sit down with the marshals and discuss it."
Sheriff Gary Caruana has said he wants to work with the County Board to address the staffing issues over five years. The county's budget constraints prevent it from immediately bolstering staffing, and Caruana has been at odds with the board for years over the level of funding it sets in his budget.
County Board member Jaime Salgado, chairman of the county's Finance Committee, called the Savage study "eye-opening," but said he has several questions he wants to discuss with the sheriff, such as how the number of officers needed was calculated.
"The numbers are pretty dramatic, considering 50 to 60 corrections officers — that's an astounding number," Salgado said. He had not yet seen the marshal's letter when contacted by the Register Star Wednesday evening.
Redmond recognized the "inherent risk" that comes from staffing shortages, but he complimented corrections officers who are "committed to making it work the best that we can right now."
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