Rockford's Independent Newspaper

Lockdown hours decline but lawsuits keep racking up for county jail

ROCKFORD — Lockdown hours at the Winnebago County Jail saw a sharp decline last month, but that hasn’t slowed a stream of lawsuits that have hit the county over recent weeks.

Inmates at the jail spent just more than 800 hours on lockdown during a month of January, a decrease from the 1,900-plus hours seen in November and December. Sheriff Gary Caruana and Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond have both pinned the increase in lockdowns on budget cuts that saw 10 removed from the ranks of the county’s corrections officers. Another four staff members left their posts, compounding the situation at the county jail.

“We’re not only down 10 corrections officers with the layoffs, we had another four resignations,” Redmond told The Times last week. “That’s a total of 14 people, which is half of an entire shift.”

Officials have responded to the elevated lockdown hours by increasing the number of overtime shifts worked by officers, trying to bring the lockdown numbers back inline. But that will only serve to aggravate the budget challenges faced by the county’s public safety officials.

The county board last year moved to slash $4.3 million from the public safety budget, a move that has pitted Caruana and first-term county board Chairman Frank Haney against one another in what has become a public battle over county dollars.

But some county board members have questioned how the staff reductions at the jail could have led to a 400 percent increase in the number of lockdown hours.

“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,” county board member Ted Biondo told 13 WREX.

The jail’s population peaked in 2012 at 1019 inmates with 174 corrections officers, according to documents reviewed by The Times. Currently, there are 788 inmates in the county jail for 149 corrections officers.

At least 64 lawsuits have been filed by inmates at the facility, most of whom are being held ahead of trial. Figures provided by the county show that only 7-8 percent of inmates are being held on convictions.

One county official highlighted the irony of the inmates using the jail’s new tablets to research their lawsuits, the first of which was filed in mid-December.

Officials have continued discussions on how to resolve the budget fight between two of the county’s top elected officials, Haney and Caruana. Sources told The Times they hoped ongoing conversations could see the budget cuts spread out over a number of years to help mitigate their impact, though it’s unclear how or if the county, which has seen its cash reserves depleted over past budget cycles, can afford to offset such costs without taking on debt.

Haney and Caruana are expected to continue discussions regarding the budget this week. R.

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