SPRINGFIELD — Illinois officials are cutting costs by putting violent prisoners in less-secure prisons, a driver behind a 51 percent increase in inmate assaults over two years, a state employee union said Thursday.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 asserted that Gov. Bruce Rauner's campaign to reduce the prison population has meant an 18 percent drop in maximum-security prison populations.
At the same time, assaults on corrections officers jumped from 541 in 2015 to a projected 819 this year, AFSCME Executive Director Roberta Lynch, surrounded by correctional officers who had suffered or witness attacks, said at a Springfield news conference.
"Is it because ... prisons with lower security levels have lower staffing levels and cost less to operate and that far too little attention is paid to the human cost of increasing violence against staff?" Lynch asked, noting "the recurring pain, the family turmoil, the physical trauma and even the permanent disability that can occur when staff is subject to violent assaults."
Illinois Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin, meeting later with reporters, rejected AFSCME declarations that management "doesn't care" and dismissed the AFSCME's claims of "budget-driven security re-classification."
He said the department is changing its classification system for inmates to replace a 30-year-old model, acknowledging that "we have a lot of population in the wrong place."
"Staff said, 'We need to know more about the offender,' and we're trying to get them that information. Staff are the best people to deal with the offenders," Baldwin said.
AFSCME counted assaults by calendar year — 541 in 2015 and 819 projected this year, based on year-to-date data. Baldwin said the department counted a 27 percent increase over fiscal years — 566 in the year that ended June 30, 2015, to 761 in the year that ended last June 30.
Seven in 10 assaults are perpetrated by mentally ill inmates, Baldwin said. Key to reducing those, he said, is training approved by the National Alliance on Mental Illness , which all department employees have had, in dealing with sometimes uncertain responses and reactions associated with mental illness.
Alanea Lewis, an officer who suffered a concussion in an attack that sent half-a-dozen staff members at the maximum-security lockup in Pontiac to the hospital last year, said the inmates responsible have been charged with battery in criminal court but Corrections department disciplinary infractions were dismissed.
Baldwin denied AFSCME's claim that misbehavior isn't punished, saying the agency's disciplinary system is "robust."
Officer Cody Dornes from East Moline complained that an improper radio communication system delayed the response to a bloody attack on a guard who was alone on a 100-inmate unit recently. Baldwin said the officer's distress call was heard and that he has sought legislative appropriation for new equipment repeatedly but has been stymied by the state's budget problems.