More suits filed over jail lockdowns

ROCKFORD — More current and former inmates have filed lawsuits against the sheriff over the increased number of lockdowns at the Winnebago County Jail since October.

The are 20 lawsuits in all. All were brought against Sheriff Gary Caruana. Six were filed Tuesday and Wednesday, days after the Jan. 3 complaint filed by Jerry Hatchett made headlines. Hatchett, in custody on a federal hold, claims the more than 1,900 hours inmates spent locked down in November and December last year were excessive.

All the plaintiffs are representing themselves. They drafted the complaints using a legal template available through the law library. Anthony Fleming, who’s awaiting trial on drug and weapons charges, claims Caruana and Redmond served him food prohibited by Islam, and that meals at the jail do not meet daily caloric guidelines. Fleming claims because he skips meals, he’s lost 20 pounds and suffers headaches, acid reflux, anxiety and depression.

Caruana and Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond have commented on the situation and say locking down the pods for at least four hours a day in addition to regular lockdowns is not part of normal protocol when the jail is adequately staffed. Redmond told The Times Tuesday that when the sheriff was forced to lay off 10 corrections officers in October, it suddenly wasn’t, posing a safety concern for guards and inmates.

Officers who were not laid off have been working more overtime since December, so there are more of them when cells are unlocked, Redmond said. That has reduced lockdown time significantly, but he said between officers needed for transporting inmates and manning the jail, he’s still understaffed.

Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney said he is not convinced that the guard-to-inmate ratio warrants the recent lockdowns based on data provided to his office by the sheriff.

Jail and court staffing has been a contentious issue since the Winnebago County Board announced last year it was scrambling to close a spending gap as much as $8 million. Not only did the board approve cuts to the sheriff’s budget, but in the probation department, circuit court and public defender’s office, among others. Chief Judge Joe McGraw filed a lawsuit of his own against the board and followed it with an administrative order that states the cutbacks impede the court’s ability to meet its constitutional responsibility. A Feb. 2 hearing is scheduled in that case. R.

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