Prison Reform Report Scrutinizes Menard

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By Hilary LeHew

CHESTER - A new report raises concerns about the safety of guards and inmates at Menard Prison in Chester.

The John Howard Association said there are serious problems at the facility, including an alarming number of staff and inmate assaults in the past year.

Menard has the worst inmate-to-staff ratio of all the state's maximum-security prisons, and in the past 18 months, the prison has been on full or partial lockdown roughly half the time.

Upon visiting Menard Correctional Center in June, the John Howard Association report found the atmosphere of the prison to be "unusually strained and tense."

"There is a lot of pressure on the system and there's always a lot of pressure in working in any prison," said Rick Bard, a former DOC Chief of Operations with more than three decades of corrections experience.

"Menard has the most aggressive population in the state and it's always, traditionally and historically been locked down more than other prisons," he said.

The report states that just within this calendar year, there have been 14 staff assaults, and the prison is running at 117% of the facility's capacity.

A spokeswoman for the DOC explained that the report fails to take into account the fact that Menard houses more than twice as many maximum security inmates as any other maximum security prison in the state.

Understaffing in prison is also a major issue. The DOC blames budgetary and legislative limitations.

"It's always been cut, cut, cut," said Bard. "We can't spend this, we can't hire staff, we can't do this or we can't do that," he continued.

The report also addresses a number of other issues, including inmate healthcare, education, and job opportunities.

"It's good for groups or good for people to question that, but ultimately you have to leave those decisions to the professionals who are running that institution," explained Bard.

DOC officials said the Governor's Office will be addressing issues like inmate population, prison policies, and alternatives to incarceration in the spring.

The report did praise the prison for improving the quality of life for segregated inmates by changing policies like more shower time. Menard's administration is also in the process of adding more jobs for inmates to earn wages during their time in prison.
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