Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday August 26th, 2016, 5:28pm

Illinois Corrections Department, AFSCME Pointing Fingers On Inmate Assault Of Pontiac Prison Workers

The Illinois Department of Corrections and AFSCME are trading blame over the recent inmate assault against six employees at the Pontiac Correctional Center.

Four correctional officers and two lieutenants were taken to the hospital, and have since been released, after suffering non-life threatening injuries in a Sunday fight with five inmates at the Pontiac maximum-security prison.

IDOC released a statement this week saying the Pontiac incident apparently stemmed from a staff "failure to follow workplace safety procedures already in place."

AFSCME, which represents the prison workers, responded by calling the department's attempt to blame Pontiac employees for the altercation "shameful and baseless."

"The department's assertion that the employees involved in the incident failed to 'follow workplace safety procedures' was made without a shred of evidence before any investigation had been undertaken," AFSCME Council 31 Regional Director Eddie Caumiant said in a statement earlier this week. "In fact, the employees' actions that day were in compliance with departmental procedures."

Since then, IDOC Director John Baldwin has released a staff safety letter about the incident. In the Thursday letter, Baldwin said the case has been referred to the local State's Attorney. The corrections department's investigative staff is also "working diligently to ensure a successful prosecution of the offenders involved in this assault on our staff."

Baldwin's staff letter offered details on the incident and the alleged protocol violation:

This incident involved offenders returning in line from the yard. During the offenders absence from the unit, contraband was removed from an offender's cell. The Lieutenant, who was struck first, told investigators that the offender was confronted while in line entering the cell house and given the shakedown slip cataloguing various items of contraband seized from the offender's cell. The offender reacted by striking the Lieutenant.

We must all be cognizant of our methods of delivering information about disciplinary matters to offenders, and ensure that we are in a controlled, secure environment when doing so. Doing otherwise jeopardizes not only your safety but that of other staff in the area. When you have the opportunity to deliver negative messages to offenders, it is always safer to do so when offenders are secured in their cells as opposed to being in mass line movements.

Providing offenders disciplinary messages in their cell has been part of our training and protocol for years. In corrections control it is paramount. If there is an opportunity for control to be compromised, it can and will happen. It is our responsibility to refrain from actions that jeopardize our control of a situation.

Baldwin added: "This unfortunate incident provides us with an opportunity to emphasize to our correctional staff throughout our corrections system how important trainings and protocols are to protecting safety of our staff."

AFSCME did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story. IDOC declined Progress Illinois' request for comment.

AFSCME Local 494 President and Pontiac correctional officer Joe Lewis weighed in on the altercation in a statement Tuesday.

"An inmate just began punching the lieutenant and knocked her to the ground," Lewis said. "Then other inmates joined in the assault, injuring the other employees who had come to her assistance."

The union claims that the Pontiac prison has become more violent since the 2013 closure of the Tamms Correctional Facility. Many inmates from the Tamms Supermax prison were moved into Pontiac.

AFSCME argues that safety "has to become a priority of the Department of Corrections."

Additionally, Lewis alleged that the administration has prioritized mental health care in state prisons over the safety and security of inmates and staff. 

"Our state is now in financial chaos, and our Administration in Springfield is more concerned with ensuring that the 46,240 inmates incarcerated in Illinois have access to Mental Health care and are not so focused on safety and security of not only our staff, but also of other inmates," Lewis said.

Lewis was apparently alluding to the December federal court settlement over a class action lawsuit that will result in increased mental health care for Illinois prisoners with mental illness and reduced time in solitary confinement. 

The Uptown People's Law Center, which brought the class action lawsuit on behalf of 11,000 Illinois inmates with mental illness, rebutted Lewis in a statement. 

UPLC said it was "alarmed by Lewis' failure to recognize that locking up an individual who suffers from a serious mental illness in solitary confinement for months or years only makes their mental illness worse, and his failure to understand that when mentally ill people are provided with medically appropriate treatment, everyone will be safer: correctional officers, civilian staff, prisoners, and the public."

When inmates with mental illness receive proper treatment, there is less of a need for use of force and it makes the prison "a much more pleasant place to work," explained Alan Mills, the UPLC's executive director.

Mills also took Lewis to task for referring to inmates as "nightmares."

"Prisoners are people, and that an AFSCME local official in an official statement would dehumanize people who are serving time is extremely troubling," he said.

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