Watchdog: Accountability

Prison on lockdown after weapons, alcohol found

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ST. LOUIS — Illinois' biggest maximum-security prison remained on lockdown for a second day Saturday after corrections officers uncovered an inmate cache of more than a dozen crude weapons, gallons of homemade alcohol and hoards of juice and sugar used to make the liquor.

While prisoner resourcefulness in secretly crafting stabbing instruments and booze is an age-old tradition, Friday's discovery at the Menard Correctional Center southeast of St. Louis reignited debate about crowding at Illinois state lockups.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer blamed the contraband on failures by employees of the prison dating to the 1800s to properly search inmates. But Kevin Hirsch, a 30-year Menard corrections sergeant and union representative, fired back, calling inmate contraband inevitable in a 3,700-inmate prison where he insists staffers are stretched too thin.

"We manage by crisis — wait for the 'Oh my God moment' and then see the resources become available. It takes that calamity before anything changes," Hirsch told The Associated Press by telephone. "The inmates are going to make weapons — it's the nature of the beast. They're not about brotherly love."

Shaer said the contraband turned up during a routine search of an unspecified sanitation area inside the prison, near Chester. The seized items included 13 stabbing weapons commonly called "shanks" or "shivs," gallons of homemade alcohol, pounds of sugar and some 300 unopened, single-serving containers of juice inmates presumably smuggled out of the dining area against prison rules.

"How they managed to hoard that, I have no idea. But we'll find out. Inmates always will try what they can when they can," he said. "The concealment of these items does not result from inadequate staffing, poor security planning or flawed policies. At this point, we believe it represents solely a failure by employees to follow existing, proven successful procedures for searching inmates following normal daily movement."

Shaer declined to say how often the lockup is shaken down for contraband, saying each of the state's two dozen lockups routinely are searched.

As part of the lockdown, inmates must remain in their cells unless excused for health-care reasons or showers, and visitations, work crews and transfers of inmates to and from the prison are halted. Inmates are fed in their cells rather than using the cafeteria, the presumed source of the seized makings for their secret booze, Shaer said.

Investigators are "thoroughly shaking down the facility, every square foot," Shaer said, adding that no inmate weapon has been used in a Menard attack for the past two years.

Hirsch said "the bulk" of the contraband found Friday turned up in the prison's biggest cellhouse, home to roughly 800 inmates who include many of those who staff the kitchen and a knitshop where inmate clothing is made.

Searching members of those work crews regularly is implausible, given staffing shortages illustrated by the knitshop — a two-floor, four-room place where the number of corrections employees supervising 50 inmate workers has shrunk from three to one.

In February, the John Howard Association, a nonpartisan correctional-system watchdog, reported that the prison was on full or partial lockdown 122 days in 2013, less than half of the 250 days reported in 2012. But officials with the watchdog group said they're still concerned that the number of serious assaults on staff there jumped to eight last year 2013, up from five the previous year.

But the group credited one change: Some 550 inmates had job assignments at Menard, up 50 percent from the 365 who had jobs in 2012.

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