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Mixing inmate groups close to reality in Illinois

Published: Monday, Feb. 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Andres Hernandez is set to go home in May after serving six months in an Illinois prison for attempting to sell marijuana. Kelsey Swickard is about halfway through a 12-year stretch for robbery and aggravated battery. Convicted murderer Dion Spears would be 93 when he’s eligible for parole in 2075.

It’s clear why inmates are sitting it out in prisons with different security stages: the minimum-security East Moline Correctional Center for Hernandez, medium for Swickard at Graham prison in Hillsboro, and Spears at the maximum-level Menard prison in the southern Illinois city of Chester.

But the strict segregation of inmates may become more difficult as the Illinois Department of Corrections struggles with budget cuts that have led to fewer staff members while the prison population jumped – all before the closure of one major prison with another soon to follow.

Gov. Pat Quinn closed Tamms, the high-security lockup at the state’s southern tip, which for 15 years exiled gang leaders and violent inmates who caused trouble in general populations. It’s too expensive to run in a state with a budget crisis, according to the Democratic governor, who also plans to shutter the Dwight women’s penitentiary.

In recent weeks, up to 15 hard-core inmates implicated in a fight at Menard – convicts who might have been shipped to Tamms before its early January closure – instead have been moved to segregation cells at lower-level prisons. And in what an employee union says is in preparation for Dwight’s retirement, the department plans to set up temporary housing in medium-security penitentiaries for overflow minimum-security inmates.

Those shifts draw caution flares from former prison administrators whose opinions on the arrangements range from “wrong” to advising that they will require careful planning and supervision.

“In a housing unit, you’ve got officers there 24 hours. In the gym, now you’ll have to pull from somewhere or you’ll have to add employee headcount,” said Gerardo Acevedo, who retired just over a year ago as warden of the medium-security Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg. “You have to add more services not only to security, you’ve got medical, clinical services, you’ve got more maintenance — wear and tear — all that has to be considered.”

Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano called both procedures “temporary” and described them as routine when situations warrant them. The need for temporary space for low-level detainees should “decrease over the coming months,” she said, but she disclosed few other details.

“Safety and security is the department’s top priority and we will continue to manage the population efficiently and responsibly in order to ensure public safety,” Solano said.

Both relocation arrangements — there’s no indication they involve inmates Hernandez, Swickard or Spears — came to the fore last week after high-profile, post-Tamms assaults on guards and an inmate death being investigated as a murder. Critics claim violence has increased because of crowding 49,000 inmates into space designed for 33,000, while eliminating the threat of near ‘round-the-clock isolation that Tamms held.

On Wednesday, The Associated Press obtained a letter from the prison workers’ union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, worried about the movement of up to 15 hardened prisoners implicated in a Menard melee that injured two guards and a chaplain, to segregated medium-security cells.

It’s routine to move troublemakers to show remaining inmates the state means business, and to let angry staff members cool off while an investigation ensues. A year ago, throwing a punch at Menard could earn a trip to Tamms.

But the current setup is safe, said Solano: “Segregation units at all facilities are governed by the same department rules.”

Retired DOC administrator George Welborn, the first warden at Tamms when it opened in 1998, said it’s not that simple.

“I don’t mean to suggest that medium-security segregation units are not secure. They are. But they’re certainly run differently,” Welborn said. “The most important thing is staff at the medium-security segregation units are not used to dealing on a day-to-day basis with these inmates. They deal with reduced-security inmates.”

The day after the complaint about the Menard move, Corrections announced in a letter to AFSCME that gymnasiums in six mostly medium-security prisons would be outfitted with beds to house inmates from unspecified lower-level lockups. AFSCME officials said they were told it was in anticipation of Dwight’s mothballing, but Solano did not comment on that.

Steven Ballard, who retired 11 months ago as warden at East Moline, is proud of DOC’s historical reputation but calls the temporary housing plans “just wrong.” Putting inmates up in gyms raises not only safety issues among potentially short-tempered men who can’t use their hotpots and TVs, but sanitation concerns, including whether there are enough showers and toilets to accommodate the newcomers.

And permanent residents — despite Solano’s point that dayrooms and outdoor yards are available for recreation — lose their workout areas.

“The purpose of those gymnasiums was for recreational and for program purposes,” Ballard said. “You brought them (resident inmates) over so they could get some physical activity when the weather’s bad.”

Ballard predicted that Corrections effectively will keep inmates in different security echelons separated, but Acevedo suggested mixing is inevitable. He said it will be difficult to keep them separated in the infirmary. A midnight work shift could be reserved for minimum-security prisoners, Acevedo said, but it would be tougher to keep them apart when it comes to educational courses, religious services or even something as simple as buying toothpaste.

“You have mostly medium inmates working there, but the minimum inmate has the right to go to the commissary, so they’re going to meet right there,” Acevedo said.

The wardens say the shorter the stay, the less concern over problems.

“I don’t think this is temporary housing,” Ballard said. “I think this is serious. ... They say they’re not overcrowded, that’s why they’re shutting prisons down, but you know what? You can say anything you want to say.”

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