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Union pickets over ‘crisis’ staffing shortage at Pontiac prison

Guards leave at shift change
Charles Rex Arbogast

Officers at the Pontiac Correctional Center staged a picket Wednesday to call attention to what they say is a dire lack of security at the maximum-security prison.

A corrections sergeant was stabbed in the neck last month by an inmate at Pontiac. A second officer also was injured in the attack.

The union that represents corrections officers claims the prison lacks sufficient security staffing to conduct the kind of shakedowns needed to find improvised weapons such as the meal shank used in that attack.

AFSCME spokesperson Anders Lindall said the prison is more than 300 officers short of staffing levels authorized by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), following years of staffing declines.

“It’s past time for them to treat this like ... a crisis and it definitely should not take someone nearly dying in order for the department to wake up,” Lindall said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.

Pontiac prison Lt. Will Lee, who is president of the AFSCME Local 494, said the stabbing was an attempted murder and the corrections department doesn't seem to believe officer safety is top priority.

Will Lee
Will Lee

“I’m fully aware we work in a maximum-security prison, but we should definitely be able to go home every day as well,” said Lee.

IDOC responded in an email the security specialists from across the state were sent to the prison following the staffing to conduct cell searches and inspections.

"IDOC recognizes that our facility staff face demanding and challenging situations daily to make our state safer. We are deeply grateful for the service and sacrifice of all our frontline employees, particularly, those who bravely responded to the incident at Pontiac Correctional Center last month. The safety of all staff remains the Department’s top priority and we will continue to take all steps possible to keep our staff safe," said IDOC spokesperson Naomi Puzzello, adding the incident remains under investigation.

The corrections officer who was stabbed and the officer who was injured are both out of the hospital. Lee said many corrections officers have left because they were disciplined for using force against inmates.

“The past year or so, the ability of staff to protect themselves from an inmate or stop an assault on a coworker from an inmate,” Lee said. “It seems like more and more or these are ending up in discipline. Of course, that adds stress to the employee.”

Lee said corrections officers at Pontiac have been assaulted by inmates more than 130 times in 2022. That includes everything from spitting at on officer to the Nov. 23 stabbing.

Lindall and Lee say IDOC has been slow to hire additional staff and has ignored union recommendations to speed up the hiring process. They said prison management also has frequently mandated officers work overtime shifts, though they said more officers lately have volunteered to take more double shifts.

Lee said all that overtime has left officers overburdened and more vulnerable. “It doesn’t help… if you work 16-hour (shifts) repeatedly, and you go home and sleep, depending on how far you drive,” said Lee, adding some officers commute from Chicago and Springfield.

Lindall declined to comment on the recent report from the Illinois inspector general that claimedthere's a climate of hazing and sexual discrimination among staff at the Pontiac prison. That investigation followed claims by a former corrections officer at Pontiac who said he was repeatedly harassed because other officers believed he was gay.

Updated: December 8, 2022 at 12:30 PM CST
IDOC replied that security specialists from across the state were sent to Pontiac Correctional Center to conduct cell searches and inspections following the Nov. 23 stabbing.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.