SPRINGFIELD — Officials locked down one of the state’s maximum-security prisons Friday morning, but not because of an outbreak of violence.
Rather, the movement of prisoners at the Stateville Correctional Center was limited from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. because a significant number of prison guards called in sick.
It was not clear Friday why there were so many absences, but Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said it was “unusual” that 58 workers were unable to report for their shift.
“The department made every effort but was unable to fill the posts necessary to continue normal operations,” Solano said. “The facility was therefor placed on level 4 lockdown in order to ensure the continued safe and secure operation of the prison.”
The incident came a week after more than 100 Stateville prisoners were reportedly bed-ridden by norovirus, a highly contagious flu that apparently spread through the Crest Hill facility.
It also came a day after hundreds of correctional officers and state retirees rallied in the Capitol against possible cuts to their pensions.
The rally was the latest large lobbying effort by a coalition of labor unions who are fighting Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly over possible reductions to their retirement benefits.
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Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union which represents correctional officers at the prison, said any member who participated in the rally did so on a scheduled day off or had prior approval to leave.
Lindall also noted that the union has recently raised concerns about the flu outbreak.
“If illness may be the cause, we don’t know,” Lindall said in a text message Friday night.
Prisons are typically placed on lockdown after violence erupts among inmates. The medium-security prison in Pinckneyville was locked down Thursday, for example, after an inmate assaulted a guard.
Illinois prisons are operating with what one watchdog group says are critically low staffing levels at a time when the inmate population has mushroomed because of Quinn’s decision to end an early inmate release program.
In a 2011 report by the John Howard Association, independent monitors found that Stateville employees were having to leave their duties in the prison to help process new inmates at the state’s northern intake facility on the prison grounds.
“This leaves Stateville with only a minimal, skeletal staff, therein limiting its operations and inmate movement to what is basic and essential, which can interfere with inmates’ ability access to the infirmary, yard, commissary, clinics, and the library,” the report noted.
At Stateville, Friday’s lockdown was short lived.
The prison resumed normal operations at 3 p.m. when enough staff showed up to work, Solano said.