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Report Cites Rising Violence, Other Problems at Illinois Maximum-Security Prison

by David M. Reutter

A report by the John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA) found that overcrowding and understaffing at the Menard Correctional Center (Menard) has resulted in an “alarming” increase in staff and prisoner assaults.

Opened in 1878, Menard is the second-oldest prison in Illinois. When JHA visited the facility on June 21, 2011, it housed 3,618 prisoners – a population roughly 17% above its rated design capacity of 3,098. Menard is the state’s largest maximum-security prison.

“On first entering Menard’s visitor’s center, JHA was struck by the unusually strained and tense atmosphere of the facility, even compared to other maximum-security prisons,” the report stated. “The demeanor of the security staff was remarkably hostile and aggressive towards inmates’ family members and to JHA’s own monitoring group members.”

One prisoner summed up the environment at Menard as “walking on egg shells.” JHA said that was not surprising, considering the number of violent assaults at the prison. In the first six months of 2011 there were 14 staff assaults, plus an “unusually large number” of prisoners in segregation, protective custody and the facility’s general population had reported cases of guards using excessive force or physically abusing prisoners. For the year preceding the visit, JHA had received a “substantial number of letters and calls” from prisoners and their family members regarding physical and verbal abuse by prison staff.

Further, lockdowns occur at Menard with greater frequency than at comparable prisons. Over the 18 months preceding JHA’s visit, Menard was on full or partial lockdown roughly half the time. On average, prisoners spend 21 to 22 hours per day in their cells.

“Ultimately, repeated use of lockdowns can undermine security of a facility by upsetting predictability and normal operations, and increasing inmates’ stress and aggression through increased isolation, idleness, and inactivity,” the report noted. “This can generate greater incidents of aggression and violence, leading to greater lockdowns, creating a vicious cycle.”

The 130-year-old facility has ever-present plumbing problems yet lacks an in-house plumber. This is not the fault of Menard’s administration, which the report praised in several areas for doing what it could and being creative with solutions; rather, the blame lies “with Illinois elected officials who expect the DOC to somehow maintain century-old correctional facilities without adequate funding for maintenance and repair.”

There were also issues related to excessive heat and lack of circulation in cells, especially in segregation cells that lack windows. “In the past seven years, two inmates have died due to extreme body temperatures caused in part by cell conditions,” the JHA report stated.

In terms of staffing levels at the facility, JHA wrote that “Menard has the worst inmate-to-staff ratio of all Illinois’ maximum-security facilities.”

Medical and mental health care at Menard is provided by a mix of state employees and private contract employees through Wexford Health Sources. “Like many Illinois facilities, Menard suffers from chronic understaffing of nurses.” While the prison has authorized staffing for 43 nurses for a total of 1,720 hours per week, at the time of JHA’s visit it was staffed with only 35 nurses working 1,400 hours a week.

Staffing for physicians was also “extremely low.” Although Menard was considered “fully staffed” with five physician positions, the ratio of one doctor to every 723 prisoners “lacks sufficient healthcare staff to meet the needs of this sized population,” JHA stated.
The report also cited a lack of dentists, as the two assigned to Menard were responsible for the care of over 1,800 prisoners each. Finally, the report noted insufficient mental health care staff.

JHA also concluded that “Menard has almost no educational programming.” There was no teacher for the 305 prisoners on a waiting list for Adult Basic Education. The facility had GED classes with 43 prisoners enrolled, but another 167 remained on a wait list. There was one construction class with only 13 prisoners enrolled, and just 16 prisoners were as-signed to a job preparedness class.

Menard does, however, have “several small but successful industries” that employ 98 prisoners. Another 568 prisoners had non-industry work assignments. Menard also suffers from severe understaffing in terms of clerical and administrative positions. This negatively affects its ability to deliver essential services, such as mail delivery, which “was behind or backlogged for several weeks up to a month.”

“Overcrowding and warehousing inmates without jobs, rehabilitative programming or education, and without adequate access to health care and basic services causes immense human suffering and undermines a facility’s security and stability. It also has a profoundly debilitating impact on morale, health, safety, and wellbeing of staff,” the JHA report’s executive summary concluded. “Ultimately, releasing these inmates back into the community without treatment or rehabilitative services will dangerously compromise the public’s welfare and safety.”

The report is available on PLN’s website, or at

Source: “Monitoring Visit to Menard Correctional Center,” John Howard Association of Illinois (June 21, 2011)

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