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 that 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 in 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 the 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 said 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 a June 3 incident where two inmates at the maximum-security Menard prison in far southern Illinois attacked a guard, an incident first reported by the (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan.
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.
Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most corrections workers, said the union is trying to catalogue 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.
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.
The loss of that early-release option had worsened crowding — there are 48,369 inmates in a system designed for about 33,000 — and some experts warned that Illinois could get entangled in a California-style lawsuit forcing an inmate population reduction.
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.” She declined to comment on whether Corrections’ projections that the population will hit 49,000 again by January 2013 are still accurate. Those projections were made in April.
“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.”