Guest Column: Holding public officials accountable on public safety

By Anthony Ponte
Vice President of Special Projects, AFSCME Local 473

The men and women who work in Corrections (this vitally critical field) deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity that everyone in law enforcement should be afforded. Corrections is not a stepping stone for patrol, as has been previously reported — it is a career.

Although responsibilities may be different from officers who patrol our streets, correctional officers deal with the same criminals and face the same dangers, but for a longer period of time. Correctional officers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses, often resulting from confrontations with inmates. Each day when we report for duty, we deal with things that the average person (in all likelihood) couldn’t handle. Oftentimes, we care for inmates who refuse to care for themselves. Many days, we are responsible for overseeing more than 65 detainees, by ourselves.

The recent informational press conference by the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department employees represented by our union was not a “ploy” or “negotiation tactic,” as some have suggested. County employees are determined to bring to light the very issues we have been forced to deal with over the past several years. Regrettably, these safety and health issues have consistently fallen on deaf ears.

Everyone agrees the Winnebago County Corrections Department is understaffed. Our union has brought other safety concerns to the administration’s attention also. Oftentimes, we are forced to make do with inadequate equipment, such as faulty radios that don’t work more than half the time. These radios provide a lifeline when we need help.

The Sheriff’s Department has also failed to provide a modified vehicle to transport disabled prisoners. Officers are forced to lift these prisoners in and out of the vehicles, which present not only a safety hazard for officers, but also a huge liability for the county, should someone get hurt. Time and time again, workplace safety concerns have been completely ignored. The administration’s focus remains on “other things” that are perceived to be more urgent or more important.

Winnebago County has a 911 Emergency Call Center that has been understaffed since the day the doors opened. These hard-working men and women put in a 12-hour shift, then go home for four hours — and are frequently forced to come back into work. Sometimes, they are mandated to work six and seven days a week, with little to no rest in between shifts. No one should be forced to work under these conditions. Citizens in crisis should be able to count on the county for ensuring public safety.

The taxpayers were asked to pass a 1 percent jail tax (which later evolved into the 1 percent Public Safety Tax). The public was told that this 1 percent tax would be used for three things:

1. To build and maintain the new jail. The jail has since been built, but maintaining the facility has proven to be a challenge. The county’s Maintenance Department does not have the proper staff, equipment or parts to properly maintain the building as a result of recent budget cuts. We regularly run out of simple supplies, like disinfectant spray, cleaning solution, spray bottles, brooms, mops, bedding and laundry soap, often going weeks without needed supplies. Fresh air is supposed to be exchanged once an hour throughout the building, but that, too, does not happen because it costs too much to re-heat/re-cool the building, so it is done once a week.

2. To maintain and properly staff the jail. A study was done before the jail was completed, and it showed that for 800 inmates, they needed 223 officers to open three floors. When the fourth floor opens and the population goes above 800 inmates, they would need an additional 15 officers per shift. The staffing levels were correct for the first several months, and then staffing levels dropped, as a result of budget cuts, and were never brought back to where they need to be. The inmate population has been way above 800 inmates for the past seven years, topping around 1,000 (these numbers do not include work-release inmates). It has only fallen below 800 a handful of times, and in the recent months, because of more inmates being released on personal recognizance bonds and those being sent to prison.

3. For programs. There were once three staff handling all the detainee programs in the jail, and because of budget cuts, we now have only one. This is too much for one person to handle on a day-to-day basis. Programs have been slowly cut one by one because of budget cuts. The most recent program cut was “anger management.” Why are these programs being cut?

Remember, the first year that the 1 percent Public Safety Tax was in place, the county took in more than $2.9 million more than what they had projected (extra money). The county had numerous years where more revenue than projected was generated by the 1 percent tax. So, what happens to the millions of dollars that are taken in?

As guardians of the public safety, the county board and the elected officials need to be held accountable and take responsibility for their actions. They need to stop with the smokescreens. They need to stop trying to push the focus off themselves and onto others. The citizens of Winnebago County deserve at least that much. Public safety is everyone’s concern.

From the Nov. 19-25, 2014, issue

4 thoughts on “Guest Column: Holding public officials accountable on public safety

  • Dec 11, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    The union explores mostly just one side of the issue. Try mentioning also what it is like to be an inmate in the jail that is improperly funded. Inmates spend a lot more time locked in their cells 23 hours a day because of so-called lack of staffing, particularly on holidays and weekends. They should be locked down only for misbehavior. The jail serves lousy, slop you can’t even call food for meals and it’s scanty. A slice of bread and a piece of bologna is called an entree. If they want to get by, the inmates have to buy commissary, which is mostly junk food. Inmates don’t have much to occupy their time. If not locked down they get to watch tv on 2 tvs in the center of the pod. If they were in state prison, they would get to buy their own tv and walkman radio to listen to music. In the WCJ they don’t have personal tvs, radios, or music. Families can’t mail in books and thick reading materials to them like in state prison either. just letters and short papers because the jail doesn’t want to spend the staff time sorting and inspecting mail materials like state prison. In WCj, the only reading is cheap literature paperbacks in the common areas. Inmates can also use computers to do legal research on online cases, but no real access to real law materials, so they have to know how to do legal research. Most don’t. It’s a wonder the inmates don’t misbehave more because they sit there mostly just twiddling their thumbs

  • Dec 11, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    Then too, WCJ does not even allow in-person family visits; it only allows one 30 minute video conference visit per inmate per week. So, inmates and their families have to pay for phone calls and those phone calls are 15 minute calls and more expensive than usual public rates. The WCJ staff used to have to process commissary and requests in person. Now they have a kiosk in every pod for inmates to use. Inmates have to input every request they have into the kiosk. The kiosk screen is timed, so the inmate has to type fast to get the words on the screen (if they are literate) for every request. The inmates have to use the kiosk to schedule visitors, request commissary, and ask every question or file every grievance they need to. Of course, the kiosks are often down (just like the one in the jail lobby) out of order and can’t be used. Or else, there is a long line of inmates waiting to use it when they are not locked down. It is very limiting.

  • Dec 11, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    There are services the jail is supposed to have available for inmates that WCJ does not have, like notary services. How difficult is it to have a notary guard available, like at state prisons where a lot of the staff are notaries. At WCJ the inmate has to go thru Rockford Outreach ministries to arrange a notary if one has time to get one in advance. And, try to get the jail administration to answer their phones and respond to requests. It is pretty hard to do so. A lot of requests and grievances go unanswered for a long time. And, don’t even talk about medical care. the school of medicine is supposed to provide medical but it is all very basic and inmates have to get pass the nurse to get to any doctor. Lots of medicine and care denials happen even when the families could pay for the services. Dental care is also a joke. They only pull teeth for dental care. Why does;t the county arrange at least for the jail to participate in the once a year free dental services events that happen out in the community every year?? That could be arranged. And jail programming is virtually meaningless too. The county could get organizations to donate a session or two a year at least for exercise, nutrition, meditation, coping skills, financial advice, etc to inmates at no cost. I think they could find them willing to do it.

  • Dec 11, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    The jail is newer, but the facility is quickly becoming run-down like the old jail because the county does not have staff clean it properly or maintain it well. some of the work can be done by jail inmates at minimal cost but the county limits the number of inmates it uses for this purpose. Jail staff do cell searches often and don’t allow inmates much paperwork in their cells, even when inmates are representing themselves. the staff seems to feel they can confiscate pretty much what they want even if it is legal property and not a security concern. the union talks about guard safety, but I bet the public would be surprised at the number of inmates injured while at the jail and how it happens. Where do they publicize that?

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