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Illinois prisoner mistakenly ‘shoved’ out the door in Wisconsin

CamerRatcliff. | IDOC photo

Cameron Ratcliff. | IDOC photo

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Updated: April 25, 2013 10:05PM

Cameron Ratcliff, an Illinois prisoner serving a three-year sentence for drug possession at the Robinson Correctional Center, took a ride up to southern Wisconsin last week to plead guilty to a similar charge, records show.

After the hearing — resulting in a simple sentence of court costs for the prisoner — Ratcliff’s Illinois lawyer said he got a phone call from his client’s girlfriend unlike any he’d received in 35 years of practice.

She said she was sitting with her boyfriend in the parking lot of the Walworth County jail in Wisconsin. Ratcliff, she said, had been released by mistake.

“They just shoved him out the door,” said McHenry County-based lawyer Henry Sugden when contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Problem is, Ratcliff isn’t supposed to go free until May 2014, Illinois Department of Corrections records show. That’s why Sugden said Ratcliff’s girlfriend called him right away in a panic, worried Ratcliff would get in trouble.

“He’s not a bad guy,” Sugden said of his client. “He’s not a serious criminal.”

He said he told them to “pound on the door and go back in there” and “don’t leave until they take you back in.”

Walworth County jail administrator John Delaney and jail superintendent Howard Sawyers owned up to the mistake this week. They said some paperwork was “misinterpreted” after Ratcliff’s April 17 hearing, and the incident has already prompted changes at the jail.

Delaney said Ratcliff spent about 30 minutes or so in the lobby there — he couldn’t be sure if Ratcliff ever went outside — but the prisoner eventually made a comment to a clerk that led her to check on his release.

“I don’t personally know what that comment was,” Delaney said.

Regardless, he said jail officials soon “grabbed (Ratcliff) back up.” In all, Delaney said, Ratcliff was a free man for less than an hour. He’ll be returned to IDOC, a spokeswoman said.

“Pretty uneventful, actually,” Delaney said.

But Sugden said it’s fortunate the incident involved Ratcliff and not someone incarcerated for a more serious crime.

Cook County officials accidentally released an Indiana prisoner earlier this year who had been convicted of murder and was serving a 60-year sentence. That man, Steven L. Robbins, took advantage of the error by visiting family. Police eventually found him in Kankakee.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also blamed paperwork at the time.

“Some of these guys would take off,” Sugden said. “That’s the danger of this system not working properly.”

IDOC records show Ratcliff has also served time for aggravated robbery and drug and stolen vehicle charges. But Sugden said his client is “basically a decent guy.” He said Ratcliff is an “interesting kid” who grew up in a bad neighborhood, lived in a foster home and raised his younger brother once he moved out on his own.

He’s smart too, his lawyer said. Ratcliff knows there’s not much time left on his sentence.

“Why screw around?” said Sugden.

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