It's rarely a good sign when prisons are in the news, especially when the news is reported at the top of the front page. Silence and a scarcity of news reports are better signs a prison is operating safely and effectively.
Such has not been the case at Pinckneyville Correctional Center, beginning with a mid-December violent incident and continuing this week with investigative reports from our state bureau chief, Kurt Erickson, about underlying conditions at the prison that may have been contributing factors.
Here are the facts:
l A prisoner, 37-year-old Alonje Walton of Chicago, was shot and killed by law enforcement Dec. 14 after he took the prison librarian, a 62-year-old woman, as a hostage and held her captive for seven hours.
l It was reported Tuesday inmate assaults against prison workers at Pinckneyville have increased at an alarming rate, according to statistics from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Assaults on staff members averaged 21 per year between 2000 and 2008 but spiked to a total of 41, for an increase of 95 percent, in fiscal year 2009.
l In Wednesday's paper, Prison Union President Randy Hellman linked the Dec. 14 violent attack to the segregation capacity of the prison being cut in half. Hellman said space previously used to segregate troublesome inmates from the rest of the population was instead used to accommodate prisoners being transferred to Pinckneyville because of budget related downsizing at other institutions.
If you've been reading the reports, you may not yet know the specific corrections that need to be pursued but likely have decided Pinckneyville Correctional Center needs a top-to-bottom review of the entire operation. A comprehensive, objective study is needed to look at each aspect of the prison operation - including inmate profiles, staffing levels, staffing experience, inmate population and security measures.
Here are some of the questions we'd like to see answered:
l Are the inmates being transferred to Pinckneyville suitable for confinement in a medium-security prison, or are they being moved within the system solely to meet budget expectations?
l Why does Pinckneyville have an incidence of attacks on staff that is nearly three times higher than at comparable institutions, such as Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner and Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg?
l What efforts were taken to determine the reduced number of segregation beds at Pinckneyville, a total of 214, is appropriate for the specific prison population? We appreciate the explanation from DOC spokeswoman Januari Smith that the prison's segregation unit's capacity of 214 is in line with comparable institutions, but it evades the real issue. We'd like to see a deeper explanation.
l Was it reasonable to allow staffing at Pinckneyville to decrease to the current total of 394, down from 520 in 2006, while the inmate population grew from 2,159 to 2,241 during the same time period? Perhaps it is possible to safely confine greater numbers with fewer workers; what are the specifics of how it is being done?
l And, finally, what more can DOC officials tell us about Alonje Walton being housed in the general population of the prison instead of segregation before the Dec. 14 incident? Hellman suggested if the prison's segregation unit had not been downsized, Walton may not have been allowed back in the general prison population within four months of being caught with a homemade weapon.
This is not just a matter of importance to Southern Illinois and to the people who are personally attached to the staff and prison population at Pinckneyville. We respect their desires for safety and security for their loved ones - it is the expectation for all prisons - but also want to ensure any warning signs indentified in the Pinckneyville investigation are quickly communicated to the state's other correctional centers.
This is a matter of statewide importance. The Dec. 14 incident in Pinckneyville may represent the tip of an iceberg. Once all the facts are known, it may be possible to safely and effectively chart a course away from disaster.