SPRINGFIELD – The union representing Illinois prison workers is denouncing what it says is a return of "circuit riders" – hardcore, sometimes brutal inmates shipped from prison to prison to keep them out of trouble – after prisoners suspected in an attack last week were transferred to less-secure lockups, The Associated Press has learned.
In a letter Wednesday to Department of Corrections Director S.A. "Tony" Godinez, a regional director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees demanded an end to transfers until Godinez negotiates safety concerns with the union.
The AP obtained a copy of the letter which traces several violent incidents to the closure of the Tamms high-security prison that housed violent troublemakers and gang leaders, and what the union claims are "deplorable, crowded conditions" in the prisons.
A Godinez spokeswoman said recent inmate transfers are temporary and routine during internal investigations into trouble inside prison walls.
After one incident last week, AFSCME regional director Eddie Caumiant said as many as 15 inmates implicated in an attack on two Menard maximum-security prison officers and a chaplain were moved to "lower-rated facilities" accompanied by no information on the risks they pose to receiving institutions and their employees.
"Despite assurances to the contrary from the state during the litigation around the Tamms closure, it appears you are returning to the risky, discarded practice of treating the most dangerous offenders in the system as 'circuit riders' ... " Caumiant wrote. "As you know, this practice proved so ineffective and unsafe that the state built a dedicated facility for these offenders rather than continue it."
It's especially dangerous, Caumiant said, when the prisons are overcrowded and have too few employees guarding them. Illinois' adult correctional facilities have more than 49,000 inmates in space designed for 33,000.
Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said some Menard inmates were transferred, but to secure segregation units in other facilities, not to general population wards.
"It is typical when multiple offenders are involved in an incident to separate them while the department conducts its investigation ... " Solano said. "Segregation units at all facilities are governed by the same department rules. The department only moves inmates into facilities or units where appropriate security can be maintained."
Prior to the 1998 opening of Tamms to house "the worst of the worst" – violent offenders or gang leaders exiled in nearly around-the-clock isolation to sever communication lines and reduce other troubles – the separation occurred through "Temporary Disciplinary Detention." Past DOC officials say participants earned the moniker "circuit riders" because they didn't stay in one penitentiary for more than a month.
AFSCME lost a lawsuit last year against Gov. Pat Quinn to halt Tamms' closure. Quinn said the state couldn't afford the expensive prison in a budget crisis and human rights advocates protested the treatment of inmates there.
Since then, in addition to the chapel assault at the maximum-security penitentiary in Menard, a Pontiac prison inmate beat a guard so severely he needed facial reconstructive surgery and another prisoner at Menard died in what the local prosecutor says is a suspected murder by another inmate. Some prison employees claim inmates are more inclined toward violence because they no longer face the threat of a Tamms trip.
Caumiant's letter said it's a violation of Corrections' administrative guidelines to move maximum-security inmates to facilities with lower levels of security.
"What's more," Caumiant said, "it is the height of irresponsibility to put employees of the receiving facilities in the position of taking inmates with no immediate knowledge of the violent crimes they have committed against employees and other inmates."
Solano said Corrections is reviewing Caumiant's letter, has met with the union on the matter and "will continue meeting to further discuss their concerns."
Contact John O'Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor