'Eventually something bad will happen': State keeps an eye on overcrowded county jail

News-DemocratApril 27, 2013 

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson says the county jail remains orderly despite overcrowding, though a prison advocacy group cautions such housing conditions create a dangerous environment and the jail may eventually be taken over by the federal government.

A recently completed inspection of the jail from the Illinois Department of Corrections marked several improvements since last year's inspection but criticized the county for not providing enough facilities for inmates housed in the 43-year-old building in Belleville. The Madison County Jail in Edwardsville received no citations when it was inspected in November.

Such overcrowding creates an unsafe environment, according to John Maki, executive director with the nonprofit John Howard Association. The association provides oversight of the state's prison system.

"These conditions not only create a very dangerous and unhealthy situation for detainees but also are unhealthy and dangerous conditions for the staff," Maki said. "Eventually something bad will happen ..."

Maki also said overcrowding stymies attempts to rehabilitate inmates to prevent crime once offenders are released.

The jail is safe and the results of the report were not a surprise, according to Watson. County officials have known for years the jail is overcrowded and hired Sitton Construction Group, based in O'Fallon, in late March to assess the best way to accommodate more prisoners in the building. The study will determine whether it is more cost-efficient to renovate or add on to the jail, and may be completed in June.

"We're going to try and address (the overcrowding)," Watson said. "We are going to do the best we can as long as everybody agrees with us. Our bosses are the taxpayers."

State inspectors have continually warned the county since at least 2005 that housing conditions could spur the Department of Corrections to petition the Illinois Attorney General to force compliance with state standards, according to state reports obtained by the News-Democrat through the Freedom of Information Act. News-Democrat articles report crowding at the jail beyond state recommendations since 1995.

The warning is one of the catalysts for the study, Watson said, though he noted state officials have been considerate of the county's effort to address conditions.

"These folks (the inspectors) know what's going on," Watson said. "They understand the economy and different issues happening at this time. They understand too that we're going to take positive steps to address these issues. They are willing to help us too."

Maki said continual overcrowding may lead to legal action from inmates or others protesting housing conditions that could lead to the federal government taking jurisdiction of the jail, such as the federal consent decree imposed upon the Cook County Jail in 1974.

"One thing at risk is litigation that leads to the take over of your jail," Maki said. "Cook County has been in consent decree for 30 years because of the kind of crowding seen in St. Clair County."

The findings

Criminal Justice Specialist Dianne Fritschel inspected the jail March 19 and found 84 more inmates than recommended by state standards housed in the jail. The jail had 502 inmates the day of the inspection but only had the capacity for 418 detainees, according to the report.

In comparison, the Madison County jail had 225 inmates on the day of their inspection but has the capacity to hold 296 detainees --71 more people.

Even with programs aimed at decreasing the number of inmates, some days about 550 inmates are in the St. Clair County Jail, Watson said. Renovations have expanded the jail's capacity from 330 inmates in 2005, though the jail had more inmates than recommended by the Department of Corrections that year and every year since.

Inmates filled all of the beds in cell blocks, dormitories and infirmary in the jail, according to the report. Nineteen inmates were in the jail's gymnasium and sleeping on mattresses the day of the inspection. On Thursday, the inmate population had slightly decreased and the jail was not housing inmates in the gymnasium.

The overflow of inmates caused the jail to not be in compliance with standards for the number of sinks, toilets, beds, seating and adequate lighting for each inmate.

The state inspection also cautioned against the jail having a single staff member responsible for two dormitories holding 32 inmates each. Watson said there are normally multiple staff members guarding the dormitories and it was unusual the guard was alone during the inspection.

"That could happen for a number of reasons," Watson said. "Somebody could go to mandatory training, somebody could be transporting a prisoner. There could be a hundred different reasons that happened at that particular time."

One of the several positives noted in the report is the creation of a "Block of the Week" program to encourage inmates to keep living areas clean.

"Getting inmates to buy in to the cleanliness program is very important," Watson said. "With that many people in a confined space you could have bacteria or different things get people sick. Really, cleaning the jail is for everybody's well-being, not just inmates but corrections officers as well."

The program offers inmates low-cost incentives, such as additional time for inmates to watch television, and has borne results.

"The inspector was impressed with that and how orderly it was," Watson said. "With that many people some jails may have problems with inmates. It was very orderly and clean, and the corrections officer had nothing but praise for us."

Monroe County

In Monroe County, state inspectors have recommended since 2007 the jail staff more than a single officer during each shift.

Additional staff is unneeded because the jail has a "unique" set up that limits interaction to only inmate at a time, according Monroe County Sheriff's Department Capt. Dennis Schreder. Schreder is one of the jail's administrators.

"The jail is set up in a circle and the correction officer sits in the middle and sees all of the jail cells," Schreder said. "They can control the inmates going in and out without having contact with them, but if he ever does it is usually not more than one-on-one."

The most recent state inspection in August 2012 cautions that the county exposes itself to unnecessary liability unless two officers are staffed per shift at the jail in Waterloo. At the time of the inspection, 15 inmates were housed in the jail but the capacity of the jail is 22 inmates.

Guards seldom have direct contact with prisoners, Schreder said. If there is an emergency when guards have contact with inmates, such as during booking or transporting them, the officer can call upon Waterloo police for aid, Schreder said.

"The regular inmate population is eight or nine people so it's kind of ridiculous to have two people," Schreder said.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service