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Pontiac Prison Officers Demonstrate Against Assaults On Staff

Outside a prison

A Pontiac Correctional Center Officer says mainstreaming prisoners who belong in solitary confinement has created an extremely violent atmosphere inside the prison.

According to prison worker union data, there were 247 inmate assaults on staff at Pontiac during 2016.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local representing the guards demonstrated outside the facility in Livingston County Wednesday. Alanea Lewis was one of several workers hospitalized after an attack last summer.

Lewis said mental health committees and administration need to talk to the people who work with inmates before making the choice to put people in the general prison population.

"Frontline staff should always be at least asked, 'What's your opinion on this inmate? Do you think he could handle general population well? Do you think he's stable enough for it?," said Lewis. "But we don't make the money to make those decisions, so they don't come to us for it."

The union is concerned about a surge in worker injuries at the correctional center. The most recent involved an officer stabbed in the head with a shank.

AFSCME Council 31 Public Affairs Director Anders Lindall said there was 50 percent increase in assaults since 2015.

"The situation is bad," said Lindall. "It's dangerous and it's getting worse." 

Lewis said it isn't uncommon for employees to feel unsafe at work.

"You should always be at least a little bit nervous or scared going in everyday. You don't know what's going to happen and as a much control as we have, that doesn't stop anything. Inmates are still inmates. They're still going to do what they're going to do," said Lewis.

Data from AFSCME shows 259 of the more than 1,600 inmates at Pontiac are considered seriously mentally ill. That 16 percent illness rate is the highest in the system and well above the system average of 11 percent.  

AFSCME proposals include better communication between administrators and guards on which inmates are risky, more mental health training, more staff, and more positive and negative disciplinary tools to respond to prisoner conduct.

Members are specifically calling for more mental health staff including more psychiatrists and other high level physicians. AFSCME says inmates diagnosed with or exhibiting signs of mental illness must have proper assessments and treatment, including medication.

Lindall said the administration needs to understand the impact of policy changes on the front lines.

"They need to listen to, work with, and respect the voices of officers and other frontline employees who brave the brunt of these policy changes," said Lindall. 

Lewis said officers watch for changes in behavior and try to refer inmates to administration if something is clearly wrong. She said everyone has to watch their back because any inmate can be dangerous. 

Lewis also said officers want people to know that they are more than just security and want to make a difference within their institutions.

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Mike joined GLT's staff as a student reporter in February of 2016 having worked previously as a reporter at Illinois State University's student radio station, 103.3 WZND. He acted as a director for the WZND newsroom for two years. Mike was also seen as a reporter, producer, and anchor at TV-10 News. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism in May of 2017 before starting his post-graduate career with the Public Affairs Reporting Masters Program at University of Illinois Springfield.
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