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Rising Deaths and Violence Among Problems In Illinois Prisons, Jails

by Michael Rigby

Imprisonment in Illinois is becoming more perilous, according to the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that monitors prisons and jails. Between August 2003 and May 2004, according to the association, several state prisoners died under suspicious circumstances and three were murdered. By comparison, only 4 state prisoners were killed in the previous 5 years.

Much of the focus has been on the Menard Correctional Center, where two prisoners died in close succession. Charles Platcher, 31, froze to death in the prison infirmary on Christmas Day 2003. Three months later, another prisoner was strangled to death in his cell. Finger pointing and buck passing soon followed.

Platcher, a prisoner serving 40-years for fatally stabbing his mother in 2001, had been moved to a solitary cell in the prison's health care unit (HCU) on December 15 after he allegedly threatened suicide and declined to visit with his father. At HCU, Platcher was issued a gown and a suicide blanket" (a heavy, carpet-type cover that can't be cut up or made into a noose). His clothes were confiscated.

Around 2 a.m. Christmas morning, the heating went out in three of the infirmary's cells, including Platcher's. The outside temperature was well below freezing. About 4 a.m. a nurse employed by the prison's private health care contractor, Health Professionals Limited of Peoria, Illinois, tried to rouse Platcher for pill call by speaking to him through the food slot. Platcher responded incoherently, which the nurse took to be a refusal. Just after 8 a.m., a prison doctor making his rounds in HCU discovered Platcher lying naked and unconscious on the cold concrete floor of his cell. He died at the hospital about 4½ hours later.

Platcher's death resulted from hypothermia, a Randolph County coroner's jury ruled on March 30, 2004. At the hearing, prison officials testified that defective valves caused the heating failure.

Within a week of Platcher's death, a nurse was fired and two other prison employeesa guard and nursewere disciplined. Later, on May 15, 2004, Menard Warden Eugene McAdory Jr. was also fired.

In a subsequent interview, McAdory suggested that nursing errors contributed to Platcher's death. According to McAdory, the nurse should have accepted only a clear no" from Platcher, and even then should have insisted on an explanation for the refusal. The nurse's job should have been to contact the shift commander, get security and go in there," he said. It's unclear why the unidentified male nurse was unsupervised, having worked at the prison for only 15 days.

McAdory contends he was a scapegoat and complained that top prison officials neglected to even visit Menard after the incident. None of these guys came down to the facility to offer support or ask questions, to see if we needed anything," he said. All they did was point fingers and blame." McAdory also bemoaned the fact that he was fired without explanation. DOC spokesman Sergio Molina said no explanation was necessary because wardens serve at the pleasure" of the director.

Platcher's family has since filed a $1 million wrongful death lawsuit against the DOC and Health Professionals. The suit, filed on May 3, 2005, in Peoria County Circuit Court, alleges that Platcherwho was reportedly involved in an altercation with two guards shortly before entering solitarywas abused before his death. In retaliation for complaining about his treatment, Menard staff stuffed a sock in [Platcher's] mouth and pushed him down metal stairways on the way to [HCU]," alleges the lawsuit. The suit further contends that while Platcher was succumbing to hypothermia, infirmary personnel wore hats, gloves, and coats and sipped hot beverages to stay warm.

He was allowed to freeze to death in their care," said John Julian, the family's attorney. At the very least, their conduct was negligent and fell below the standard of care one would expect to be provided to inmates." [PLN has been reporting frigid Illinois prison suits for years. See, e.g., PLN December 1991; February, August, and June 1995; June 1997; February 1998; and April 2000.]

Soon after Platcher's death, another prisoner died at Menard, though his death received far less scrutiny. Joshua Daczewitz, 22, and Corey L. Fox, 28, had been paired together in the prison's segregation unit for several months. Daczewitz was serving a 7-year sentence for residential arson and robbery, the result of a June 2003 plea bargain, and had been transferred to Menard for an unspecified rule violation. Fox was serving a life sentence for murder; he had been at the prison since 2001.

On February 28, 2004, Fox allegedly used a braided bed sheet to strangle Daczewitz, then flushed the sheet down the toilet. Guards discovered Daczewitz's body after Fox passed them a note saying he was dead. According to investigators, Fox said he strangled Daczewitz because he was tired of having a cellmate.

Sexual harassment also apparently thrives at Menard. In March 2004, 11 female guards sued the DOC claiming co-workers sexually harassed them over a 4-year period and retaliated when they complained, including forcing them to unsafely escort prisoners.

Interestingly, DOC officials may have done better to stick with McAdory. In October 2004, members of the guards' union at Menard made it clear in a 492-42 vote that they have no confidence" in McAdory's replacement, Charles Hinsley, said union representative Buddy Maupin. The guards were apparently upset with Hinsley for not placing the unit on lockdown after a prisoner assaulted a guard in July, 2004.

Troubling deaths are also prevalent at the maximum-security Stateville prison, where 3 prisoners died in a recent 19-month period. In August 2003, Andrew Clark was strangled to death in or near his cell. In February 2004, Riley McLarin's lifeless body was found inside his cell; his death was ruled a suicide. A month later, prisoner Michael Robinson was fatally stabbed.

The situation is no better in the state's jails. On October 16, 2004, 21 prisoners were injured in a riot at the Cook County Jail, 3 of them critically. The melee erupted about 1:30 p.m. in Division 9, a maximum-security wing of the jail, said sheriff's spokeswoman Sally Daly. The wing, which typically houses 45 to 50 prisoners, probably had only one guard watching over it when the riot began, officials said. According to Daly, Sheriff Michael Sheahan attributed at least part of the blame to overcrowding. Built to house 9,800 prisoners, the jail held 10,500 when the riot occurred.

In another maximum-security wing of the jail, Jamar Rodgers, 17, was stabbed to death on November 17, 2004. According to sheriff's spokesman Bill Cunningham, a fight between Rodgers and another prisoner began in the dayroom, then escalated in a shower area. Rodgers was fatally stabbed between the shoulder blades when another prisoner joined in. James Chip" Coldren Jr., president of the John Howard Association, questioned the guards' reaction time. The detainee had to struggle to an area where an officer was to get some attention," he said. It doesn't look like anyone rushed in to quell the disturbance.

Both incidents follow criticism over the handling of a 1999 episode in which a group of 40 guards beat and terrorized prisoners. In September 2004, a grand jury report accused Sheriff's department officials of perpetrating a coverup of gross if not criminal misconduct" after that incident.

The jail has also been the site of numerous other mass brawls. In March 2002, 1 gang member was killed and 2 others critically injured in weekend gang fights in Division 9. In July 2000, 7 guards and 5 prisoners were wounded during a gang fight. In May 1995, 2 gang members were stabbed to death during a fight over use of the shower; the same week, a fight involving 33 prisoners left 5 seriously hurt.

Violence may also be a problem at the federal jail in downtown Chicago, but in March 2005 the focus was on contraband. Michael A. Hill, 33, a guard at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, is accused of supplying prisoners with a bounty of banned items, including cigarettes, whiskey, beer, brandy, marijuana, shrimp, and cell phones for $1,500 each.
Hill, who filed for bankruptcy in 1999, had worked at MCC and two other local jails for four years. From 1994 to 1997 he worked at the Stateville prison near Joliet, where 4 guards were indicted in 2003 and 2004 for providing drugs, cell phones, and sex to prisoners. (It's unknown if Hill was supplying prisoners with contraband there as well.) [See PLN, March 2005 for more on Stateville and Cook County Jail.]

Hill was arrested on March 10, 2005, after meeting with the female acquaintance of a prisoner who allegedly provided him with a camera, a cell phone, 418 grams of marijuana, and $2,000. Charged with providing contraband to prisoners, Hill was released on $25,000 bail.

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