Third Prisoner Dies at Illinois’ Overcrowded Menard Prison
by Derek Gilna
One of the jobs of prison officials in any department of corrections is not only to protect the public from possibly dangerous individuals, but also protect the older and weaker prisoners from predators. After the third death of an unnamed prisoner under suspicious circumstances at Menard correctional center in southern Illinois in March 2013, it is clear that the Illinois Department of Corrections has some work to do.
Although the majority of confined prisoners across the country are non-violent offenders, institutions like Menard can be dangerous places. Prisoners learn quickly to form alliances with like-minded individuals to keep themselves safe instead of relying on prison guards to protect them.
Menard, located in downstate Chester, near St. Louis, currently houses 49,100 prisoners in a facility meant for 33,000, so there is bound to be friction. Overcrowding means more prisoners sleeping on cots, or shoehorned into small cells where living conditions can add to the already tense atmosphere. The most recent unexplained death took place in the prison’s allegedly secure segregation unit, where one can be confined either for their own protection or as punishment for disciplinary infractions. This particular prisoner had a cellmate, although there was no evidence that he was involved.
In January 2013, another prisoner, Jason Hall, was also found slain in a segregation cell, but in that case his former cellmate, James Amison, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Amison, already serving five life sentences, has been transferred to the prison at Pontiac, Illinois.
Another Menard prisoner, Yusuf Abuzir, who was serving a life sentence for a shooting in Cook County, was killed in February of this year in a fight with his cellmate.
The Randolph County Coroner, Randy Dudenbostel, and Illinois Department of Corrections official Stacey Solano both said that his death was being investigated.
Randoph County State’s Attorney Jeremy Walker noted, “There’s no question that violent incidents appear to be on the rise down there,” and his staff is also looking into alleged attacks on staff with homemade weapons, or “shanks.”
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn almost lost reelection in the last election cycle when he was attacked in the media for supporting early releases for 1,700 state prisoners in an attempt to save money. As a result, Quinn pulled back on the initiative, and Illinois’ prisoner counts began to steadily rise.
Unfortunately, Illinois is broke, and saddled with the worst credit rating of any state. So Quinn, now safely renominated and elected, has reintroduced prison-closings into the vocabulary. Quinn has ordered the closing of five prisons, including the high-security Tamms, notorious for its solitary confinements. Other prisons, such as the woman’s facility at Dwight, has seen its population drop from 1,000 to 140 in a little over a month, according to S.A. Godinez, the $150, 228 a year earning head of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Certainly no one can argue with the logic of reducing the prison population to save money, rebuild communities, and reunite families, but hopefully the Department of Corrections will devote some of those additional resources freed up by the resulting cost-savings to fulfill its obligation to protect prisoners from violence or death.
See: “Third (Prisoner) Dies Suspiciously at Illinois Prison,” by John O’Connor, Associated Press, March 27, 2013.
See also: “Second Menard (Prisoner’s) Death is Suspicious,” Associated Press, February 27, 2013.
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