By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana’s decision to increase the time inmates spent locked in their cells, following a sweeping round of budget cuts reduced the number of corrections officers last fall, is one he is standing by.
“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.
That statement came as an Illinois Department of Corrections report concluded that inmate lockdown time exceeds state standards.
“Jail officials expressed concern over the number of security staff at the Winnebago County Jail,” the report reads. “Due to reduction of security staff, detainees are kept secured in detention rooms for longer periods, which harms detainee morale.”
The report continues that the jail population has increased by 20 percent since 2007 while staff has been decreased by 22 percent. As a result, IDOC officials recommend the jail increase its staff to a “level endorsed by jail experts in order to promote the security of the community, improve safety to staff and detainees, protect the civil and legal rights of staff and detainees and stimulate efficient jail management.”
In 2007, the jail housed an average daily population of 665 inmates with 196 guards. Today, the average daily population is just over 800. There are currently 149 officers, Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond said.
Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney said the 2007 inmate-to-officer ratio does not paint a realistic picture. Those numbers are skewed, he said, partly because it was the year the jail opened.
“The 2012 data point tells a much different story,” Haney said, referring to when the average daily inmate population was 1019.
There were 174 corrections officers in 2012, showing a ratio does that does not represent a situation that warrants more lockdowns today, Haney said.
The county board approved a total of $4.3 million in cuts to the sheriff’s budget last year, something Caruana said couldn’t have come at a worse time. The slashes, he said, were instituted just as he was working on plans to improve conditions at the jail for corrections officers and inmates.
Haney said last week the sheriff has resources within his current budget he could redistribute. He added that while the jail is operating with a reduced staff, other measures like additional surveillance cameras and more officer training have bolstered security.
Not so, says Caruana.
“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.
In October, a total of 64 positions, including 10 corrections officers, were eliminated in the first round of cuts. That’s when Caruana says the safety concerns IDOC officials noted arose. So, he began locking prisoners down for four hours per day in addition to standard times 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.
County board member Ted Biondo told 13 WREX that even if the board wanted to increase the sheriff’s budget, there’s no money. He also accused Caruana of 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.”
Redmond said it’s simply a numbers game when it comes to persons on duty.
“We’re not only down 10 corrections officers with the layoffs, we had another four resignations. That’s a total of 14 people, which is half of an entire shift.”
Caruana and Redmond have been commenting on the situation since last summer. Both had warned legal repercussions would be a likely outcropping. They were right.
At press time, 23 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.
Lockdown hours are a cumulative number of hours spent on lockdown in each of the jail’s individual pods.
In response, the department has asked guards to work more overtime. The results have drastically reduced the number of lockdown hours but the extra time will ultimately come with increased payroll costs.
The sheriff and Haney met Monday about the matter. Details of the meeting were not available at press time. Caruana said he plans to present the board with a budget amendment that, if approved, would allow him to rehire as many as 30 officers. Sources The Times talked to say while some members will support it, it isn’t likely to pass. R.