Lawsuit filed over county jail lockdowns
ROCKFORD – An inmate has filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Gary Caruana over the number of hours spent in lockdown at the Winnebago County Jail.
Jerry Hatchett, 43, claims the amount of time inmates are on lockdown is excessive and that many of the lockdowns are not warranted. The suit also alleges that the jail does not employ enough guards to safely or lawfully run the facility.
Hatchett, 43, has been in the county jail since Feb. 6 of last year on a federal hold. He filed the complaint Jan. 3.
More daily lockdowns—about four hours per day—were implemented last October. That’s when Caruana was forced to lay off 10 corrections officers as part of what he was told was a required $4.3 million in cuts because of a massive county spending gap.
As a result, inmates spent more almost 2,000 hours on lockdown over the next two months. When the jail is fully staffed, they would only be locked down during lunch, shift changes, emergencies and cell searches.
Last September, the jail’s pods were locked down for 363 hours. January’s number at press time was 696 hours. Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond says that figure is attributed to increased overtime by some of the roughly 150 officers who were spared in the layoffs. And even with the increased extra time, the jail still runs very lean.
“A week ago, for example, I think we had 26 officers on a day shift,” Redmond said. “That forces officers to pull double duty for cell checks and shakedowns.”
Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney said while he commends the sheriff for making more than $2 million in initial cuts, he believes getting the department as close to the $4.3 million in cuts as possible is the best way to proceed.
“I don’t even like talking about it, and I mean no disrespect,” Haney said. “But we have to be cognizant of the fact that we are taking in $8 million less in revenue than we did in 2008.”
Sources indicated that the county board was working with the sheriff to mitigate the budget hit, allowing the department to spread the cuts out over the next few years. Caruana said earlier this month that he would eschew any further cuts in the current fiscal year.
Haney also noted the year the jail was at its fullest, 2012 when it housed 1,019 inmates, there were 174 corrections officers, or 5.85 prisoners per officer. In 2017, there were 801 inmates and 152 corrections guards following the cutbacks, according to figures compiled by the sheriff’s office. That leaves 5.27 prisoners per officer.
“Before the budget, we were down 12 corrections officers and 218 (fewer) inmates,” Haney said. “We have about 800 inmates and about 152 corrections officers.”
The chairman added that since 2012, the county has supported more training for guards, upgraded surveillance equipment and has provided inmates with electronic tablets, things that have created a safer culture.
The county’s public safety budget has also increased in that time, from $32,323,545 in FY12 to just shy of $38 million in FY18. Dollars for corrections have increased more than $2 million in that time.
Redmond said it is easy to be misinformed about how the jail is operated. And while he has supported upgrades, he stands by the contention that a reduced number of guards has a direct correlation to the increase in lockdowns because it has posed safety concerns.
“There is a lot that goes into what can be considered a lockdown,” he said.
Caruana has long maintained that slashing his department by $4.3 million would come with grave public safety issues. He said the board used a questionable baseline that didn’t jive with the true economic outlay of his department. Had it used budgetary numbers from before the Great Recession instead of a 2011 baseline, the county board would have avoided the perception that he could slash around $5 million from his spending plan.
Officials declined comment on the specifics of Hatchett’s lawsuit. But Redmond said the filing is no surprise and more complaints are possible.
“I think lawsuits are a natural product of the proposed cuts,” he said.
Hatchett is seeking $15,000 in damages and an injunction to stop excessive lockdowns. The case is scheduled for court April 5, in front of Judge Edward Prochaska. According to court records, Hatchett is representing himself. R.