Rockford's Independent Newspaper

Sheriff addresses county jail lockdown situation

ROCKFORD — Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana is standing by his decision to increase the time inmates spent locked in their cells after a sweeping round of cuts reduced the number of corrections officers last fall.

“When I ran for office four years ago, I communicated my concerns about the jail staffing and the dangerous position that the corrections officers were in,” Caruana said in a statement released Friday.

Last year, the county board approved a total of $4.3 million in cuts to the sheriff’s budget, something the sheriff said couldn’t have come at a worse time. The slashes, he said, were instituted just as he was working through plans to improve conditions at the jail for corrections officers and inmates.

Last October, a total of 64 positions, including 10 corrections officers, were eliminated in the first round of cuts. That’s when Caruana says safety concerns at the facility became even greater. So, he began locking prisoners down for four hours per day in addition to standard lockdowns during shift changes, meals and cell inspections.

“After I was elected, I worked hard to repair that situation but the $4.3 Million in cuts to the sheriff’s department was a huge setback,” Caruana added.

Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney told The Times this week that the inmate-to-guard ratio is nearly the same as it was in 2012, when the jail housed 1,000 inmates per day. And he did not see the need for tripling lockdown time. Haney also said while the jail is operating with a reduced staff, other measures like additional surveillance cameras and more officer training have bolstered security. The sheriff also has the ability to pull from existing sources within his department.

Not so, Caruana said.

“Chairman Haney’s comment about shifting resources is dead wrong and demonstrates a high level of ignorance about the operations of the sheriff’s department,” he said.

Board member Ted Biondo told 13 WREX that county cutbacks were unavoidable and that the increased lockdowns appear to be nothing more than posturing.

“Ten officers leaving could not have caused the amount of shut down hours to quadruple, and it’s almost as if it was intentional to force this kind of funding which we don’t have to give,” Biondo said.

Caruana spurned that notion. He said he is doing anything but playing politics.

“I reject and challenge anyone who tries to impugn my character by suggesting that I have some political agenda,” the sheriff said. “The political agenda is clear with those who would pat themselves on the back for a balanced budget over public safety or the safety of our corrections officers.”

Caruana and Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond have been commenting on the situation since last summer. Both said they feared there could be legal repercussions if the department was forced to lay off staff. So far, they’ve been right. A total of 22 current and former inmates have sued the sheriff over what they’re claiming were excessive lockdowns last November and December, when inmates spent more than 1,900 hours alone in their cells each month.

The sheriff’s statement comes day after the Rockford Register Star released details of an Illinois Department of Corrections report that concludes that inmate lockdown time at the Winnebago County Jail exceeds state standards.

Redmond said in an earlier report that the department is asking some of its 149 corrections officers to work extra overtime to remedy the situation. The results have drastically reduced the number of lockdown hours, but it will ultimately come with increased payroll costs to the county.

Caruana says his next step is to present the board with a budget amendment that, if approved, would allow him to rehire as many as 30 officers. R.

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