On Tuesday, stakeholders and workers from across the corrections industry told a panel of Illinois lawmakers that lingering impacts from state’s budget impasse have contributed to an increase in assaults on corrections workers and the neglect of mentally ill inmates. State representatives gathered members of the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, among other groups, to testify on possible solutions during a subject matter hearing of the House Appropriations-Public Safety Committee.
Committee Chair Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) said she called the hearing after receiving an increased number of communications about violence in DOC and Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities.
“These communications are coming from staff alleging increased abuse from inmates or residents, and from advocates on behalf of inmates and residents alleging increased violence on the part of staff. In both cases, complaints about the agencies’ level of response and level of acknowledgement of a prob, and seeming desire to correct it,” she said.
“The agencies’ responses to that have been that they are doing everything in their power, and then some. And, you know, rarely in this work do you find yourself in a situation where there is zero match between anybody’s stories. There’s usually some common ground that you can find, and these stories all diverge so much that it’s almost impossible to get to the bottom of them.”
AFSCME representatives said violence has increased significantly in the last two years in the state’s medium security prisons, where a combination of new policies and a lack of funding create a need for multiple solutions at once from the state. In the meantime, they said ensuring workers’ safety requires timely action.
“No one in this room believes that it’s acceptable that anyone’s job would include being routinely spit on, groped, splashed with urine or feces. Or, for that matter, punched or stabbed, or otherwise assaulted,” said Anne Irving, director of public policy for AFSCME Council 31. “So if we can agree, then the significant increase in assaults that we’ve seen over roughly the last two years in DOC and DJJ facilities needs to be addressed.”
Irving said AFSCME representatives visited facilities and learned that assaults are contributing to extreme turnover. Prior to two years ago, state corrections policy enforced a greater degree of inmate segregation. Unless an inmate was in transit between rooms, they were largely in their cell. Reduced inmate segregation can make managing a facility’s general population unpredictable but AFSCME called for key improvements that could make the job safer.
The group wants the DOC to stop housing maximum security inmates in medium security facilities, provide adequate medical staff for facilities where mentally ill inmates are integrated into the general population, and to provide facilities with basic equipment such as functional walkie-talkies and replacement prisoner transport vehicles. Another recurring theme was the call for necessary staff training updates to address the new policy toward integrated inmate populations.
Rep. André Thapedi (D-Chicago) was adamant that neither staff, nor inmates, should endure the assaults currently reported.
“Absolutely not. That should not be happening,” he said. “The inmates have some rights as well, too. And when they’ve made a mistake–those that have truly made a mistake–and they’re incarcerated and they’re there to do their time, I think they’re they’re to do their time; not to be beat up on by other inmates or guards, not to be raped by other inmates, not to be mistreated, et cetera.”
DOC Director John Baldwin told the committee Illinois’ own assault rate increases are consistent with rates seen nationally, but that untangling the exact causes is a complex process that is currently being undertaken across multiple states.
One potential cause is that Illinois’ definition of assault has been widened in recent years, which he says makes it more expansive that most other member states of the Association of State Corrections Administrators.
“You’ll notice there is a spike when we change the definitions. That was to be expected and that is what has happened,” he said. Baldwin said he agrees with the definition in place currently, however.
Baldwin told lawmakers assaults in maximum security prisons, which hold 25% of the state’s prison population but account for 60% of all assaults on corrections workers, are down over the last two years. Baldwin said medium security prisons, which are home to 33% of total assaults are down over several years and currently at 2008 rates. He said minimum security facilities, which account for 25% of the prison population, accounted for only 6% of corrections assaults, a rate that’s been falling since 2014.
Another factor Baldwin said could impact the data is the location of the assaults.
“Almost all of our staff assault increases have occurred at Pontiac, Logan, and Dixon. Those are our three largest drivers. If you take those out of the equation, the number of staff assaults in the Illinois Department of Corrections is stagnant or dropping,” he said.
“Why those three institutions? All of those three are where we house a large percentage of our seriously mentally ill. Nationally, the percentage of staff assaults by someone who is designated SMI hovers between 70 and 80 percent of all staff assaults.”
The three locations are each scheduled for mental health unit development.
Baldwin was quick to stress that there are mentally ill people who interact with staff and do not assault or have integration problems, but said: “We owe it to our staff and population to do a much better job of dealing with the mentally ill in our operation.”
Cassidy told witnesses and committee members the panel would reconvene again at a later date to continue reform discussions aimed at stemming prison violence. No date has yet been confirmed.