With injuries to Cook County Jail guards on the rise and with watchdog groups saying a chronic guard shortage is growing worse, the union representing rank-and-file correctional officers has joined a chorus of organizations calling for the county to hire more guards.
That chorus includes the outside watchdogs, Sheriff Michael Sheahan and a federal judge overseeing a 22-year-old consent decree on jail overcrowding. But County Board President John Stroger, who proposes the county budget, has yet to sing the same tune.
Last year, Sheahan took away Stroger's five-man security detail after Stroger refused the sheriff's request to hire more guards.
That history looms over Sheahan's recent informal request for 200 new guard positions in the 2005 budget, which Paul O'Grady, Sheahan's attorney, said was rejected by Stroger because of an anticipated tight budget in the coming year.
That could signal a second consecutive annual budget battle. But this year's could be refereed in part by a powerful outside influence, U.S. District Judge George Marovich.
After hearing about Stroger's rejection last month at a consent decree hearing, Marovich told all parties to the decree to come up with a plan before November to hire more guards.
"The county budget for fiscal 2005 is currently being prepared with every option under consideration," Stroger spokesman John Gibson said last week. "We will talk with the sheriff and others charged with responsibility for law enforcement to come to a solution."
The Metropolitan Alliance of Police, which represents more than 2,400 rank-and-file jail guards, contended in a recent statement that the County Jail "has a higher inmate-to-officer ratio than any other correctional facility in a major U.S. city."
"With these marginal-at-best staffing levels, professionalism is impossible to maintain and the risk of injuries to officers increases," said the statement, made in a letter to the Tribune by T. Steven Calcaterra, an attorney for the alliance.
Calcaterra said the Corrections Yearbook, put out by the Criminal Justice Institute Inc., determined that the jail had 4.58 inmates for every guard, compared with 1.69 in New York, 3.1 in Houston, 3.86 in Miami and 4.46 in Los Angeles.
But Charles Fasano, director of the prisons and jails program at the John Howard Association, a non-profit group monitoring the 1982 consent decree overseen by Marovich, cautioned that the numbers by themselves don't tell the whole story.
The question to ask is, "How many guards are really in the business of guarding inmates?" he said.
Nevertheless, his organization's most recent report on jail overcrowding notes that the number of guards has remained the same since December 1999. The report says the jail has less staff than required in the decree and suggested by "professional correctional standards."
Though the report does not link the guard shortage and staff injuries, it does note that from 1991 to 1998, jail staff injuries averaged fewer than 10 a month. Injuries rose after that every year but 2001, to the current average of more than 30 a month.
"I believe there's a correlation ... that relates directly to the staffing problem we have," Calcaterra said.
Sheahan spokesman Bill Cunningham agreed: "We believe it's related to understaffing and overpopulation."
According to the John Howard report, officials are making progress in addressing overcrowding, the original concern raised in the 1974 class-action suit filed by pretrial jail detainees that gave rise to the 1982 decree.
The attorneys for the plaintiffs in that case gave the most attention to the jail guard shortage in their response last month to the John Howard report.
"It's the biggest concern and it's the most pervasive concern," said Diane Redleaf, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "It seems like you can't deal with overcrowding until you deal with the staffing issue because you don't have the staff to open new units."
Since 1999, the last time the number of guards was increased, the average daily population of the jail has increased by nearly 1,100 people to about 10,571, the response states. If the jail had the same inmate-to-staff ratio as it did in 1996, when the number of staff injuries was five times lower, it would have 413 more correctional officers, it states.
According to the response, the shortage has forced the virtual lockdown of inmates under protective custody and has led to less recreation time, library visits, phone access and grievance responses for all inmates.
Though jail officials hope to open a new 150-bed pre-release drug treatment center later this year that officials believe will further alleviate crowding, they would need to staff that with 50 officers. Marovich suggested that hiring the 50 needed for the center would be the bare minimum he would accept.
Both the John Howard report and the response also noted that because of budget constraints, the sheriff's one-time annual $2 million training budget, which allowed the sheriff to immediately fill guard vacancies, was eliminated in 2002.
"We're asking them to restore the training budget," Fasano said.
Currently, 51 of the 2,426 budget-authorized jail guards, which doesn't include 290 supervisors, are in training, Cunningham said. An additional 42 are out because they were injured on duty, he said.