As lockdowns increase at Ill. jail, both inmates and COs feel the pain

Hours spent by inmates in lockdown surged after 10 COs were laid off Oct. 26 as Sheriff Gary Caruana grappled with a $4.3 million budget cut

By Kevin Haas
Rockford Register Star, Ill.

ROCKFORD, Ill. — Wake-up call at the Winnebago County Jail comes at 6 a.m., the time inmates are let out of their cells to stretch their legs and spend time in a common area shared with up to 63 others.

But lately the doors are kept shut and breakfast is slid through a small "chuck hole," the nickname for the tray-sized food port, and they wait for the chance to leave their 13 1/2-by-7 1/2-foot cement cells. Sometimes it's an additional six hours. Sometimes more. Inmates never know how long it will be until the moment the doors unlock.

Long hours of lockdown are typically reserved for those in the disciplinary section of the jail. But these days, lockdowns are for the general population, too, used as a tool for a dwindling number of corrections officers to keep tabs on the men and women being held while they await trial or serve monthslong sentences for lesser offenses that don't warrant prison time.

Hours spent by inmates in lockdown surged after 10 corrections officers were laid off Oct. 26 as Sheriff Gary Caruana grappled with a $4.3 million budget cut. Inmates spent a combined total of 496 hours on lockdown in October, according to data provided by the Sheriff's Department. The next month, the first full month after the layoffs, lockdown time nearly quadrupled, to 1,968 hours.

The situation has made unlikely allies of inmates and corrections officers. Both groups say long lockdown hours foster a dangerous environment.

"When we finally do get to come out it's louder than normal, it's more fights than normal, more people getting in trouble," said Jennifer Lenderman, 30, of Loves Park, who is awaiting trial on charges stemming from an alleged burglary.

'Like an animal'

Lenderman has been held on $2,000 bail for three weeks so far. She expects to spend much more time in jail before her case is resolved. "Just thinking about it drives me nuts," she said. "They tell us it's just going to get worse."

Outside the jail, Lenderman's family has been lobbying County Board members to provide more money in an effort to end the lockdowns, she said. Other inmate families have done the same.

"We're getting nowhere," said Theodore Thurman, who is being held without bond. He said he wanted to represent himself on federal charges of possession of a firearm by a felon, but lockdowns have made it hard for him to do the research needed.

Tablets now allow inmates to access content such as GED prep, religion, anger management and parenting classes, the law library, and books, games and music. The tablets are supposed to improve the safety of inmates and corrections officers, and can help inmates pass the time while in their cells.

"When they put us on lockdown, it's so random you don't even have time to put money on the phones to even use the tablets," Thurman said.

"It makes people go crazy, literally. ... You feel like an animal."

Thurman and his fellow inmates know they're hard-pressed to find sympathy on the outside, one of the reasons they fear the long lockdowns may be indefinite.

"We have rights, too. We shouldn't have to be locked in a cell the whole day or half a day," Lenderman said. "A lot of people are saying we're caged up like animals."

Anatomy of lockdown

The jail is staffed by 44 fewer corrections officers and three fewer supervisors than in 2007, the year the facility opened, according to records provided by the Sheriff's Department. Meanwhile, the inmate population has increased. The jail has held an average of about 800 inmates a day this year, compared with 665 in 2007. The jail has seen bigger population spikes since 2007, topping out 1,019 inmates per day in 2012.

The jail is divided into pods, with a total of 21 in use including the mental health and disciplinary sections. General population pods typically house 64 inmates with one officer watching. But with fewer officers available, one officer now often must keep tabs on 128 inmates in two separate pods. To accomplish that, inmates in both pods are kept in their cells and checked on through the small square window in the door.

The lockdowns usually last six hours, rolling through different pods at different times in an effort to spread the burden among inmates. Aside from the disciplinary segments, pods don't separate those accused of violent crimes from those accused of nonviolent offenses.

Although the idea of one officer alone with 64 inmates sounds intimidating, it's better than a lockdown, Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond said. That's because lockdowns can agitate those locked up, increasing the chances for a fight after the cells open.

"It makes it tense. You can feel it in the room," Redmond said. "We have no choice. We're trying to work the best within the budget cut that was given us.

"It all depends on the type of inmates you have, too. We're not Andy, where Otis comes in and locks himself up for the night and gets up in the morning and leaves. You got a region here that's basically been pegged as one of the most violent metropolitans in the United States, and so those are the type of inmates you have housed here."

Officer safety

Once a lockdown ends, there's no guarantee how long the inmates will be allowed out of their cells. A medical emergency, a fight in a different pod, an officer who calls in sick or a transport to court can lead to instant lockdown. One inmate going to the hospital can force four pods to shut down. That's because two officers are needed to assist with the medical transfer, leaving two others to run two pods apiece.

"These guys been locked down maybe all last night and the morning of, and now we're telling them, 'Hey, you need to lockdown again,'" Lt. Rob Lukowski said. "Do you want to be that one guy in front of those 64 inmates?"

Lenderman can attest to the reluctance of inmates to return to their cells.

"A lot of people just try to stand around as long as they can, just try to stay out of their cells for another few minutes," she said, pausing mid-sentence as she was interrupted by the sound of women on lockdown banging on the doors of their cells in unison, sending booming echoes through the cement walls of the jail.

When inmates are off lockdown, they're allowed in a common area where they can watch TV, play cards, socialize and purchase items from the commissary. Forcing men and women back into their cells shortly after a lockdown ends can create a dangerous situation, and fights have increased along with lockdowns, officers say.

"If one guy doesn't want to go back, it could turn into 10 guys," Lt. Justin Egler said. "It doesn't take much."

Egler has worked in the jail for 19 years. He's never seen so many lockdowns. The 1,968 hours of lockdown in November was 800 more than the next highest month, April, which saw a jailwide sweep for contraband.

"I don't want to have inmates on lockdown like this. It's not right; it's not designed for that," Caruana said. "It's not good for the inmates and their well-being or the corrections officers."

Budget cuts

An arbitration hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4 on a health and safety grievance filed by the corrections officers' union against the County Board, the board chairman and the sheriff because of low staffing levels. The grievance was filed in August 2016, when Scott Christiansen was County Board chairman, and staffing has dropped further since then. There were 191 combined corrections officers and supervisors in 2016, 18 more than today. The grievance cites a memo from former Jail Superintendent Andrea Tack, who on Feb. 14, 2006, said the new jail needed a combined 228 officers and supervisors.

"I'm not so concerned about that (arbitration) as having somebody get hurt, whether it's an inmate or a corrections officer," Caruana said. "We'll get through that arbitration but we need to add staffing back."

A cutback on the amount of overtime the sheriff is asking officers to work has also contributed to lockdown increases

In November, corrections officers worked 813 hours of overtime, a 56 percent drop from the monthly average in 2016. The department often made up for staffing shortages with long overtime shifts, Redmond said. Department records show, for example, that 2,408 overtime hours were worked in June. That's more than the 2,087 hours a single employee works on average for a year, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management.

"We're doing everything we can to try to get the budget down," Redmond said.

Inmates' rights

Lockdown can disrupt inmates' sleep cycles, leaving them asleep during the day during long lockdowns and up at night, pacing back and forth in their cells, some inmates said. It can exacerbate a host of mental health issues, too.

"Too much incarceration causes you to get an antisocial-personality disorder," said Paul Bahler, who has been in jail since August 2016 as he awaits trial on armed robbery and other charges.

Nationwide, about a quarter of jail inmates experience serious psychological distress and 31 percent reported a major depressive disorder, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Inmate Survey.

"It's stressful enough to be in jail — you could come in psychologically healthy and start deteriorating," said Camille Bennett, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois who works on the ACLU's Institutional Reform Project, primarily on prison cases. "But if you already come in with a psychological need and then you're put under conditions that stress you out more, then you have a serious mental health need claim."

Some of the men and women in jail contend lockdowns violate their rights. Determining whether such conditions violate inmates' constitutional rights requires a fact-based inquiry in which a court examines the conditions and hours spent on lockdown, Bennett said.

Staffing shortages are dangerous for inmates and corrections officers alike, Bennett said.

"You just create risks if you're short-staffed," Bennett said. "The optimal thing here would be for Winnebago County to solve this problem before somebody has to file a lawsuit, before something really bad happens."

©2017 Rockford Register Star, Ill.

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