By Jamey Dunn
Union officials say the attempted sexual assault of a corrections officer in the Danville Correctional Center illustrates the dangers associated with the state’s overcrowded prison system.
According the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents corrections employees statewide, an inmate who was housed in a gym at the medium security prison was in a separate housing unit doing laundry for other inmates housed in the gym. He allegedly lured a corrections officer into a laundry facility by claiming a machine was broken, punched her in the jaw and attempted to rape her. The union’s account says the guard was saved when another inmate responded to her screams and halted the attack.
The Department of Corrections denies that the officer was alone at the time of the attack. “The corrections officer who was assaulted was absolutely not the only officer with the inmates at the time. IDoC procedure calls for three: two officers and a control officer. That proven effective level of staffing was in place during the shift covering this assault,” Tom Shaer, a spokesman for the department, said in a written statement.
The department acknowledges an attack occurred but gives few details. “Danville Correctional Center is on lockdown after an assault on an officer early this morning. No serious injuries were sustained, and a thorough investigation is under way. Any physical contact with a guard is unacceptable, but again, fortunately, the officer was not seriously injured,” said a written statement from the department. “The Illinois Department of Corrections takes all incidents very seriously, as safety and security are our constant priorities. We have interviewed the officer, who is at home, other staff and inmate witnesses as we gather all the facts. Director [Tony] Godinez has also talked to the officer and extended his continued thanks for the fine work being done by this experienced individual and all DOC personnel.”
Gov. Pat Quinn has closed several corrections facilities including halfway houses, juvenile detention centers, a super-maximum security prison in Tamms and a women’s prison in Dwight. Quinn said that the state’s budget woes made the closures necessary. Women from Dwight were moved to the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln. Men from Logan swapped places with women at the Lincoln Correctional Center. As part of the transition, an estimated 600 male prisoners were bused to six other prisons to be housed in gymnasiums filled with bunk beds. The department describes the situation as temporary, but it has yet to give specifics on its plan to stop putting prisoners in gyms. “It’s a temporary dorm setting. Obviously, we have no control over the inmates that we receive into the system,” corrections spokeswomen Stacey Solano told Illinois Issues last month when asked about the prisoners in gyms. Similar conditions existed at other low level security facilities before the closures. However, inmates are housed on large wings instead of in gyms.
AFSCME sued to try to block the closures, arguing that they would create an unsafe environment for its members. But the Illinois Supreme Court sided with Quinn. “The men and women who work in our prisons provide for the safety of the public, and they deserve the safest possible working conditions,” AFSCME executive director Henry Bayer said in a written statement today. “Their job is difficult, but the choices of politicians have made it worse. The state has ignored its responsibility to provide the resources needed to maintain safety, and now workers are bearing the terrible consequences.”
The Danville Correctional Center was designed to hold 900 inmates in single cells. By putting more than one prisoner in each cell, the department pegs the prison’s operational capacity at 1,862. According to the union’s count, at 1,931 the prison is currently over operational capacity.
AFSCME says that the prison is also understaffed. The union’s account of the attack says that the officer was alone in the housing unit. “Although prison directives require that two officers be posted on each unit at all times, they are routinely circumvented by management on the overnight shift, leaving a single officer alone. The union has repeatedly objected to this practice at Danville and elsewhere, fearing just this sort of opportunistic and predatory violence.”
However, a spokesman for DoC said that the department does not leave mandatory guard positions open. “In every correctional facility, there are mandatory posts. The Department of Corrections covers every mandatory post and does not leave them vacant,” Shaer said.
The most recent report on the Danville facility from the prison watchdog group The John Howard Association is from 2011. The report says that like many DoC facilities, Danville was “plagued by staff vacancies.” The report predicted that understaffing could be an issue for the prison. “As more staff near retirement age, vacancies may cause problems in the near future.”
The Danville attack comes after recent reports of violent incidents at maximum security facilities, including the murders of three inmates at the Menard Correctional Center. But Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31, said problems are not exclusive to the higher security facilities. “The dangers of crowding and violence are not only at the max security level. Every facility in the system is interdependent on others,” Lindall said.
Despite the department’s statement, Lindall said it is “on going practice” at some facilities to cover staffing gaps by having officers from mandatory posts cover other duties on the night shift. He said the union has “repeatedly” raised concerns about it. “You have an inmate who is housed in a gym and an officer who was left alone on a housing unit — all circumstances about which we have sounded the alarm in the past. This shouldn’t have happened.”