Menard prison staff picket, citing unsafe working conditions

Menard prison staff picket, citing unsafe working conditions

By MOLLY PARKER
Capitol News Illinois
[email protected]

Hundreds of Menard Correctional Center employees and their supporters staged a rally alongside a busy street in Chester on Monday, highlighting what they described as perilous working conditions at the state’s largest maximum-security prison.

The problems at the southern Illinois facility stem from low staffing levels, said Rick Hepp, a correctional sergeant at the prison. Hepp said that in recent months the prison has been operating with about 50 fewer correctional officers than it should have daily.

“There’s lots of issues here that add up to a big powder keg and the fuse is lit,” said Hepp, who is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1175, a union representing Menard employees.

Read more: Communities, commission push Pritzker admin for more prison plan details

He said the staffing shortages often lead to restrictions in the normal activities that prisoners can engage in, such as yard time, visits to the commissary and even showers. This is frustrating inmates, leading to an uptick in assaults on workers and fights among inmates, he said.

Hepp said that over a recent three-week period, 13 correctional officers were out due to injuries sustained on the job. In one instance, a prisoner headbutted a guard, breaking his nose and necessitating emergency surgery.

In another, an inmate being escorted outside of his cell broke out of his cuffs and took off running. When a guard tried to apprehend him, the inmate punched him in the face with his cuffs, he said. Though they eventually secured him, Hepp said that six correctional officers had to seek medical care following the incident.

Amid the chaos, Hepp said that some employees have started calling in sick on their scheduled days because they are burned out or afraid, exacerbating the staffing crisis.

For five hours, the workers gathered in a strip mall parking lot near the entrance to Menard’s medium-security unit. They held up signs reading “Safety Matters” at the edge of the road, even as the rain began to fall.

Menard, a 146-year-old prison located along the banks of the Mississippi River, houses about 1,500 maximum-security and 300 medium-security individuals.

Eddie Caumiant, a regional director with AFSCME, who helped coordinate the event in Chester, said that though Menard’s staffing and safety problems are acute, they are not unique. The union, he said, expects to hold similar pickets in prison communities across Illinois in the coming weeks.

Caumiant said the union is also concerned about the impacts of Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to close Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security men’s prison in Crest Hill, while a replacement facility is built. The recently passed budget included $900 million for the new construction of Stateville as well as Logan Correctional Center, a female lockup in Lincoln. AFSCME has expressed support for constructing new prisons near their current locations but has pushed the state to keep them open until construction is complete. Other prisons, he said, are not in a position to handle an influx of new inmates from Stateville, even temporarily.

Read more: Lawmakers pass on oversight vote for Pritzker’s prison closure, rebuild plan

Naomi Puzzello, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said the agency recognizes that prison staff face “demanding and challenging situations daily” and said that staffing challenges are a nationwide problem. The department, she said, has worked to reduce Illinois’ prison population, while it has continued to “aggressively” recruit to fill openings statewide.

Menard Correctional Center had 817 employees as of May, which she said is 68 short of the number budgeted for the fiscal year ending June 30. But Puzzello said that number included staff for a “South Cell House” that remains unoccupied. This year, she said, IDOC has hired 76 staff members at Menard, including 31 correctional officers.

Puzzello said that, to date, no inmates transferred into Menard have been related to the plan to rebuild Stateville.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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