Suits against Ill. jail pouring in daily after lockdowns
The suits are alleging "excessive and unwarranted lockdowns," and several are seeking $15,000 in compensatory damages
By Chris Green and Kevin Haas
Rockford Register Star, Ill.
ROCKFORD, Ill. — The number of lawsuits being filed against Winnebago County officials in response to the intentional prolonged daily lockdowns is growing by the day.
Monday, Dave Kurlinkus, Winnebago County State's Attorney's chief of staff Civil Bureau, said four suits had been served.
Tuesday, Winnebago County Circuit Clerk Tom Klein said his office had received 15 lawsuits against Sheriff Gary Caruana.
"They're coming in every day," Klein said. "I'm sure there are more in the mail today."
Each of the lawsuits is identical, except for the name of the inmate suing. Klein said his office is in the process of merging the plaintiffs so the complaints can be handled by the courts together.
The suits are alleging "excessive and unwarranted lockdowns," and several are seeking $15,000 in compensatory damages.
Sheriff Gary Caruana does not deny that inmates spend long hours on lockdown. Earlier this month at a Register Star Editorial Board meeting he said inmates were being held on lockdown for 10 to 12 hours a day after he laid off 10 correctional officers due to budget constraints.
The County Board in September sliced the budgets of multiple county departments before passing a balanced fiscal year 2018 budget that went into effect Oct. 1. The sheriff's budget was cut by $4.3 million. In addition to laying off the corrections officers he also laid off 64 reserve deputies and support staff. Despite the cuts made so far, he still needs to cut about $1.8 million to reach $4.3 million in cuts, a goal he said he cannot meet.
Instead, the sheriff said he plans to seek a budget amendment. He wants the County Board to restore $2.2 million in funding, which he said would allow him to hire seven patrol officers, 29 corrections officers and six dispatchers.
In the interim, the Sheriff's Department has started hiring more corrections officers on overtime shifts as it tries to curb long lockdown hours. As a result, the lockdown hours have been cut by 55 percent through the first 22 days of January compared to the same period through December.
"We took 900 hours of lockdown," Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond said. "We're trying to work within the budget. We're trying to be conservative. We just can't maintain at this point."
The jail has 149 corrections officers and 22 supervisors on staff at the jail, which is about 50 fewer officers and two fewer supervisors than 2008, the first full year in the current jail.
The jail divides inmates into pods, with a total 21 pods in use. General population pods typically have one corrections officer looking over 64 inmates. But with fewer officers on staff, one officer now keeps tabs on 128 inmates in two separate pods. The jail puts both pods on lockdown to allow one officer to monitor both by checking on inmates through the small square window on the cell door.
Redmond was surprised to learn the high number of lawsuits that have been filed over the lockdowns. He said inmates may be organizing among themselves to sue.
"There are inmates that believe they're more knowledgeable than attorneys," he said. "They'll do their own research and start spreading the word ... to try to organize other inmates to do similar paperwork."
At Tuesday's combined Public Safety and Finance committees meeting, County Board member Joe Hoffman, D-10, questioned how the sheriff can claim he is understaffed if there are no minimum staffing guidelines.
County Board Chairman Frank Haney added, "The sheriff has the authority to shift resources from within his department if he thought jail staffing was a priority or need. He did not. So that suggests to me that he does not really see this as a major issue. We will continue to discuss this and other items in the coming weeks."
Alison Leal Parker of Human Rights Watch, a New York City-based nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization said she understands the plight of the inmates' as well as that of the sheriff's.
"The sheriff should not hold inmates hostage in order to achieve his budgetary goals," she said.
"But, there are human rights issues at stake on all sides in this controversy. In investigations across the country, we have documented the harm that can come from lockdowns — denying inmates access to exercise, social interaction and opportunities for hygiene. At the same time, we have documented instances in which the failure to properly staff a jail can lead to overwhelmed staff using improper force against inmates, or can allow violence among inmates, including sexual violence, to go unchecked."
©2018 Rockford Register Star, Ill.