Report: Ill. jail understaffed, lockdowns too long

The report comes amid complaints from inmates and COs alike about the long hours inmates are spending on lockdown

By Kevin Haas
Rockford Register Star, Ill.

ROCKFORD, Ill. — A state inspection of the Winnebago County Jail has concluded that inmates spend too many hours on lockdown and that officers routinely fail to observe inmates in their cells in a timely manner.

The annual Illinois Department of Corrections inspection was conducted on Dec. 6 and delivered to county officials on Jan. 19. The Register Star obtained the report this week after making a request to Winnebago County Clerk Margie Mullins.

The report says that personal observation checks, which are conducted by corrections officers on inmates while they're locked into their cells, "were found to routinely exceed the 30 minute limit" required by law. It also said that "detainees are being kept secured in detention rooms for longer periods which harms detainee morale." The state recommends that the sheriff increase jail security staff in order to improve safety for both inmates and corrections officers.

The report comes amid complaints from inmates and corrections officers alike about the long hours inmates are spending in their 13½-by-7½-foot cement cells rather than in a common area shared by 64 inmates. It also fuels an intensifying debate between Sheriff Gary Caruana and members of the County Board, who have sparred over a $4.3 million cut to the sheriff's budget. Caruana says money needs to be restored so he can staff the jail adequately and reduce lockdowns, while some County Board members have criticized him for not allocating resources differently if he considers jail staff a priority.

Meanwhile, inmates have filed a growing number of lawsuits against the sheriff for "excessive and unwarranted lockdowns," and several are seeking $15,000 in compensatory damages. The Winnebago County Circuit Clerk's Office received two more suits by mail on Thursday morning, bringing the total to 21 and counting, according to Circuit Clerk Tom Klein.

Inmates have described the long hours on lockdown, which can exceed 12 hours a day, as inhumane. Corrections officers have said that lockdowns can agitate inmates and lead to more fights.

"It makes it harder on us correctional officers 100-fold by doing these lockdowns," said Mike Delgado, who has worked in the county jail for 13 years and spent four years working for IDOC before that.

The Winnebago County Jail was found to be noncompliant with state jail standards because of its failure to make checks every 30 minutes. Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond said the system that records inmate observation checks is computerized and allows for little wiggle room if officers fail to register their checks on time, even if they only miss by a minute or two. He said additional lockdowns may have contributed to the missed times.

Typically, one officer is assigned to a pod of 64 inmates. However, at times of increased lockdowns, one officer becomes responsible for moving between two pods and performing checks on 128 people.

"Sometimes those rounds may be late because one officer may be doing two housing units," Redmond said.

The regular checks are important to ensure inmates are safe. On Saturday, Justin T. Matthews, a 19-year-old inmate being held on a murder charge, hanged himself inside his cell. Matthews was inside the mental health unit, where inmates are checked on every 15 minutes. "His checks were on time," Redmond said.

If the county doesn't meet the state standard for inmate checks within six months the state can seek a court order that would force the county to comply, according to Illinois County Jail Standards.

In 2014, the state also recommended hiring additional staff to curb safety concerns after its annual inspection. Officers were hired shortly after. The county was in compliance during inspections in 2015 and 2016. The county's insurance company, Travelers, also recommended that the county increase the jail staff to reduce safety risks, a document provided to the Register Star shows.

The state's report notes that average daily inmate population has risen by 20 percent since the jail opened in 2007 while the number of corrections officers has been cut by 22 percent.

"These factors have contributed to the reduction of programs available to detainees which has been linked to recidivism in national studies," said the report, authored by Criminal Justice Specialist Michael Leathers.

The duration of lockdowns spiked after 10 corrections officers were laid off Oct. 26 as part of Caruana's plan to absorb the $4.3 million budget cut. Inmates were confined to their cells a combined 1,968 hours in November and 1,905 hours in December. That's more than three times the monthly average for the rest of 2017. This month, however, the sheriff has ordered more officers to work overtime shifts in order to scale back lockdowns. As a result, lockdown hours have fallen by 55 percent through the first 22 days of January compared with the same period in December.

Caruana wants the County Board to restore $2.2 million to his budget so he can hire seven patrol officers, 29 corrections officers and six dispatchers. County Board Chairman Frank Haney said the sheriff should manage priorities to stay within his budget.

"The community expects a safe jail. Almost every sheriff's department in the state operates on less than our sheriff's $29 million budget," Haney said. "Is it possible the problem isn't money but rather process or priorities? I look forward to discussing this issue with the sheriff when he returns from his vacation in Florida."

The jail's segregation unit, where inmates are sent for disciplinary reasons, typically provides just one hour a day off lockdown. Inmates in the "max" unit, where they go after segregation in hopes of moving back into the general population, are locked down all but three hours a day.

However, since lockdowns have increased, inmates in the max unit are allowed out only one hour a day, Delgado said. That makes rehabilitation difficult as officers look to move inmates back into the general population. Most of the inmates have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial, he said.

"How would you feel as a human being, locked up 23 hours a day, only allowed one hour out with 64 other inmates, only six phones, eight showers, one kiosk to order commissary and (phone) minutes, one law library and you're still not found guilty and are waiting a judgment?" Delgado said.

Staff writer Chris Green contributed to this report.

©2018 Rockford Register Star, Ill.

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