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Statehouse News: Prison guard numbers worry lawmakers

August 29, 2011

By Andrew Thomason
Illinois Statehouse News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — State budget constraints are creating real safety concerns in Illinois’ prison system for some legislators.

Already short-staffed, according to state Sen. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga, the Illinois Department of Corrections could lose up to 1,000 prison guards in the next year because of retirement.

This is something that just can’t wait any longer. … It’s bad now. What’s it going to be like when you lose 1,000 guards?” Cultra asked Aug. 25 during a conference call with reporters.

Cultra was joined on the call by state Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon. Both senators have two prisons in their districts. They said they are concerned about the staff-to-prisoner ratio at all corrections facilities.

Each facility in the state has a ratio of about one prison guard for every 20 inmates, according to figures released by Cultra and Jones.

But, Sharyn Elman, spokesman for corrections, said the two senators’ numbers are flawed.

You can’t do an overall comparison. How would you compare and say that it would be the same (number of guards needed) in maximum security facilities as at a minimum security facility? They’re comparing apples to oranges,” Elman said.

Elman said that for the state’s super maximum, maximum and medium security prisons, the staffing levels are at one guard for every six inmates.

The Department of Corrections had a plan to train at least four new cadet classes averaging about 150 students per class during this fiscal year, which started July 1, but state budget constraints could put a damper on that, Elman said.

She said meetings among corrections staff members are planned during the next several weeks to determine just how much money is available to spend on training new guards.

New guards would join the ranks of about 10,000 guards in keeping watch over the almost 49,000 inmates being held by the state, according to the Department of Corrections.

That’s another number that worries Jones, Cultra and others about Illinois’ correction system.

Illinois prisons initially were built to hold 33,373 inmates. Corrections officials, however, switched how they determine that number by counting the number of beds a prison can hold instead of the number of cells. By doing so, the corrections officials could show that the facilities were technically not overcrowded.

Inmates have 34 square feet of living space, or slightly more space than one finds in a typical bathroom, according to the Department of Corrections.

Thomson, the newest prison in Illinois, is being sold to the federal government, because the state can’t afford to operate it.

We’ve passed a lot of laws over the last few years, and we’re putting more and more people into prison, and so our population on the inmate side is really growing, and the staffing levels are going down,” Jones said.

Gov. Pat Quinn put a hold on one early-release program following political pressure when it was revealed that hundreds of inmates were put back on the streets after serving just a few weeks of their sentence in 2009. Quinn pushed the blame onto Michael Randle, then-director of the Department of Corrections, for what he called a “mistake.”

Illinois could face a similar situation as California, where the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to decrease its prison population by about 30,000 because of overcrowding.

Jones and Cultra said they want to see a combination of early-release programs and new hires to combat the discrepancy.

To pay for new guards, and maybe even a new prison, Jones suggested eliminating the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority. Created in 1995, the authority gives grants to various organizations throughout the state to administer anti-violence programs.

Jones said the state could save more than $30 million.

Cultra has a more novel way of generating cash for new guards.

Corrections, they use to produce their own milk, they use to have their own cattle operation. There’s a lot of things they could do to not only produce better food, locally, and distribute it through the prison system, we could save money by doing that,” Cultra said.

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