East Moline prison guards describe violence, predict more
By CHRISTOPHER WILLS Associated Press July 22, 2012 9:36AM
Updated: July 22, 2012 5:49PM
Guards at Illinois’ overcrowded and understaffed prisons predicted Thursday that Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close two penitentiaries will lead to more violence, like an incident where a guard was attacked and radioed for assistance, then had to fight off the inmate for five minutes before someone came to his aid.
“Five minutes is a lifetime,” said Mark Mountain, a union leader and officer at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in East Moline. He said the officer was punched several times in the face and head on July 7 and suffered a knee injury because there was no immediate backup from the shorthanded prison staff.
“This one bothers me when I go to sleep at night,” Mountain said at a state Capitol event organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The union is trying to build public pressure on Quinn to drop his plans for closing the “supermax” prison at Tamms and a women’s facility in Dwight. The Democratic governor says it can be done safely and will save $57 million needed for other important state services, such as child welfare.
Union members recounted incident after incident — fights between inmates, prisoners attacking guards, more weapons being discovered, gangs growing bolder.
“The governor has lit the fuse on a powder keg, and he’s not going to be around for the explosion. We are,” said Jake Dalton, a sergeant at Pontiac Correctional Center.
The governor’s office denied its plans will increase the danger for prison staff.
“To indicate there is a correlation between prison closures and the number of assaults is simply false,” Quinn spokeswoman Kelly Kraft said in a statement.
Statistics from the governor’s office show attacks on prison staff climbed by nearly one-third over the past five years, to 453 incidents. But that still amounted to less than half the attacks from 12 years ago. Inmate-on-inmate attacks were also up by nearly one-third over the past five years and slightly below numbers from 12 years ago.
The Illinois prison population will reach 49,000 by January, according to Corrections Department projections. Under Quinn’s closure plan, capacity for the remaining prisons will be just 33,700.
Still, the Quinn administration says some facilities aren’t needed. The Tamms prison, which houses the most violent and disruptive inmates, is only half-full. And the number of female prisoners has fallen, aides say.
“We no longer need all the facilities and that’s good news,” Kraft said.
Employees insist the prisons are needed. Tamms might not be full, but it serves as a useful threat to keep inmates in line at other prisons, they argue. And the plan to close one women’s prison involves transferring its inmates to what is currently a men’s prison and then shipping the men elsewhere — making things more crowded overall, they say.
“Somebody has got to bring the governor to his senses and stop these closures,” said Gregg Johnson, a supply supervisor at the East Moline Correctional Center.