Menard Correctional Center

Menard Correctional Center


Menard Correctional Center is a Level One maximum-security adult male facility located in Chester, Illinois. It is the largest maximum-security facility in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

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Monitoring Reports

Executive Summary

JHA’s previous monitoring report, published in April 2013, addressed a number of critical concerns. At that time, Menard experienced several high profile events against the backdrop of IDOC facility closures. JHA observed that, “incidents of staff assaults and recent inmate deaths have brought attention to high tensions at Menard, where physical plant issues, constant lockdowns, and allegations of unprofessional staff conduct and neglected inmate grievances are common.” IDOC had to confront these longstanding, challenging issues. In communications with administrators regarding the previous report, we discussed the importance of transparency and accountability in making and documenting improvements.

Factors working against facility improvements include ongoing known issues with physical plant, staffing, and crowding. Yet Menard has made progress despite the max facility absorbing about 100 additional inmates since the time of our prior visit. Unfortunately, some positives noted in our previous report, such as availability of single-cells for many inmates in mental health housing, have been erased. With double-cells as small as 4 feet 8 inches wide, inmates at Menard may experience the paradoxical psychological detriment of both being crowded and isolated. Staff expressed that they are still struggling to appropriately double-cell inmates, stating that it can take six to eight moves to get a new inmate in. Further, crowding creates greater demands on shared space and staff. Luckily Menard gained approximately 79 security staff from facility closures in the past year.

Against this backdrop, Menard has substantially decreased its use of lockdowns, which was a primary concern of JHA’s prior report. Less lockdown means that most inmates are getting out of their cells more often. In 2012, Menard spent more than two-thirds of the year, 250 days, on some level of lockdown, and it was not uncommon for the facility to have a lockdown lasting a month or more at a time. In the last year, this was more than cut in half, with most of the full lockdown days occurring in early 2013, suggesting a continued positive trend with the exception of the recent lockdowns due to flu and extreme weather.

Executive Summary

Menard is one of the oldest prisons still in use in the country. The facility houses more inmates than any other IDOC facility: 3,666 men, with 3,144 maximum-security inmates; 1,923 who have more than 20 years left on to serve on their sentences; 645 life term inmates; and 10 with indeterminate sentences. In addition to its maximum-security general population, Menard houses disciplinary segregation, administrative detention, and protective custody inmates.

Menard remains one of the most problematic facilities within IDOC, which has recently been the focus of news stories describing suspicious inmate deaths and staff assaults. Many longstanding and challenging issues at Menard set out in the 2011 report persist, including frequent use of lockdowns, violence, ineffective grievance procedures, healthcare access, lack of programming, and physical plant issues. It is critical that IDOC address these issues. Research on prisons suggests that these kinds of tensions produce greater gang violence, and that “there appears to be a strong correlation between reported levels of violence by staff against prisoners and violence among prisoners.”

Alongside these issues, Menard suffers from chronic understaffing. Administrators remarked that little more than 10 years ago the facility had at least 300 more staff and 200 fewer inmates. However, at the time of the visit, there was a critical need for clerical and healthcare staff, and supervisory security. JHA hopes that the influx of staff from the closures of other facilities will aid Menard leadership institute improvements.

Despite these ongoing problems, Menard must be commended for improving several weaknesses since JHA’s 2011 report, such as reducing its use of segregation, introducing mental health programming, educating staff regarding the inappropriateness of corporal punishment, using security cameras to monitor inmates and staff, and expanding recreational and programming opportunities. JHA visitors also noted that the facility seemed well managed, considering its significant challenges. JHA heard many positive reports that the recent administration has made a concerted effort to better educate and communicate reasons behind policies to staff and has investigated not only inmate but staff misconduct.

This report addresses the following areas: Lockdowns, Inmate Grievances, Library, Disciplinary Segregation, Administrative Detention, Staffing, Healthcare, Mental Health, Physical Plant, Quality of Life, and Demographics.

Executive Summary

On June 21, 2011, the John Howard Association (JHA) visited Menard Correctional Center (Menard), a Level One maximum-security adult male facility located in Chester, Illinois. Menard is the largest maximum-security facility in the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC). Opened in 1878, Menard is the second oldest prison in the state. On the date of JHA’s visit, Menard housed 3,618 inmates, a population roughly 117 percent over the facility’s rated-design capacity of 3,098 inmates.

Like other Illinois facilities, Menard suffers from systemic overcrowding, understaffing, and limited access to medical and psychiatric treatment, rehabilitative services, education, and jobs for inmates. Indeed, Menard has the worst inmate to staff ratio of all Illinois’ maximum-security facilities, as well as that of several medium and high-minimum security facilities. Despite efforts by Menard’s administration to fill staff vacancies, lack of funding and gross delays inherent to the state’s slow and convoluted hiring processes routinely frustrate these efforts.

In the absence of sufficient space, staffing and resources, the vast majority of Menard’s inmates do not have educational, vocational or job assignments. Consequently, the average inmate at Menard spend roughly 21 to 22 hours a day locked in cells idle, with little or no activity or opportunity for normal social and human interaction. Apart from this, a large portion of Menard’s inmates (415 at the time of JHA’s visit) were housed in segregation. These inmates are even more isolated than the general population and have even less opportunity for activity or interaction, as they are afforded only five to seven hours of out-of-cell time total per week.

This kind of prolonged isolation, environmental deprivation, and inactivity can have a profoundly destructive effect on inmates’ physical and mental health, further taxing the facility’s already overextended staff and resources. A large body of literature establishes that segregation conditions can induce severe psychiatric illnesses and mental disorders even in otherwise healthy persons. The likelihood of this occurring is greatly increased by virtue that a large portion of inmates have been subjected to repeated and prolonged trauma since childhood. Unsurprisingly, serious psychiatric disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, and mental illness are endemic in the prison population. Menard’s population is no exception. In Menard’s segregation unit alone, more than half of the inmates were taking psychotropic medications and/or being treated for mental illness.

Despite its significantly large number of mentally ill inmates, Menard, at the time of JHA’s visit, staffed only four part-time psychiatrists (for a total of 64 hours per week, 15 hours provided remotely through telepsychiatry rather than in person), two full-time psychologists (for a total of 80 hours per week), and two full-time social workers (for a total of 80 hours per week). From sheer numbers alone, it is clear that the mental health needs of a population of 3,618 persons at high risk for mental illness and traumatic disorders cannot begin to be met at a staffing level equivalent to less than six full-time mental health professionals facility-wide.

A correctional officer that JHA interviewed confirmed that overcrowding and lack of programming and assignments, coupled with insufficient security and professional staff, have increased pressure, stress and opportunities for violence at Menard. The officer’s observation was consistent with studies showing that overcrowding, inactivity and isolation tend to increase inmates’ levels of frustration and stress, which, in turn, increases tension and stress for staff. These institutional stressors can thus have a destructive and demoralizing impact on correctional staff as well, whose jobs, even under the best of conditions, are extraordinarily demanding.

Given these conditions, it is perhaps not surprising that JHA has received an exceedingly high number of reports from inmates and inmates’ family members regarding correctional staff physically assaulting, and verbally abusing inmates. To its credit, Menard’s administration was responsive to these reports and insistent that staff is held accountable and that abuse of inmates is not passively tolerated. This stance is critical because abuse of inmates and use of excessive force cannot be controlled absent strong oversight and leadership by administrators and supervisory staff.

Overall, JHA was impressed by Menard’s administrators, who seem genuinely proactive, creative, and engaged in identifying, documenting and rectifying problems in the facility.

For example, despite extremely limited resources, the administration has worked to reduce the use of segregation, increase the amount of showers for segregation inmates, and increase recreation time for inmates as a reward for good behavior. The administration has also worked to increase inmates’ jobs, including employing inmates in a gardening project and in a mural project to commemorate Menard’s veterans. On first arriving at Menard, the Warden and his staff also took a complete photographic inventory of physical plant problems in the century-old facility and are systematically working to address these physical plant issues.

The practical reality remains, however, that the ability of Menard’s administration to address systemic issues is seriously curtailed by overcrowding, understaffing, and lack of resources. Yet, the response of Illinois elected officials to the crisis in prison overcrowding has been to strain correctional facilities further – by slashing DOC’s budget, eliminating education, treatment and rehabilitative services for inmates, suspending meritorious good time credit, and reducing prison staffing levels – all the while doing nothing to reduce the population. Time will tell that these actions served only to compromise the safety and stability of Illinois prisons, and the safety and welfare of the public, by releasing inmates back into the community with serious untreated physical and mental illnesses, and without job skills, education or rehabilitation.

Executive Summary

On April 6, 2010, a group of four John Howard Association staff and volunteers conducted a monitoring tour of Menard Correctional Center, by far the largest maximum security prison operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections. We visited a general population housing unit, medical and mental health care unit, disciplinary segregation unit and protective custody. This tour did not include an adjacent medium security unit and this report focuses mainly on the maximum security section of the prison.

Donald Gaetz, at the time serving as warden of Menard, said he was making it a priority to minimize the number of lockdowns. Historically, Menard has had more lockdown days than any other prison except Stateville Correctional Center. (Gaetz was promoted to a more senior management position shortly after the JHA tour. No permanent replacement has yet been named for the warden position at Menard.)

A lockdown is a necessary but disruptive precaution imposed by a warden, although his or her decision to lockdown is reviewed by more senior personnel within IDOC.

In a lockdown, inmates are restricted to their cells 24 hours a day and can lose privileges such as visits and access to commissary. They are limited to one weekly shower and phone calls are largely prohibited. Typically lockdowns progress through five levels. The first level, imposed at the time a lockdown is declared, is the most restrictive. As time progresses, the lockdown becomes less restrictive and is then lifted.

A lockdown can last for as little as a day or as long as several weeks.

Lockdowns punish the innocent as well as the guilty. Lockdowns halt or limit visits by friends or family who may have traveled hundreds of miles to see an inmate. Lockdowns indicate that a prison has a problem. Moreover, lockdowns prevent inmates from participating in education and rehabilitative programs.

There are an almost infinite number of reasons for lockdowns. If a key goes missing a cell house might be locked down so that Correctional Officers can search for it. A serious assault by an inmate on a staff person might lead to an entire prison being locked down. Although rare, the entire prison system can be put on lockdown in the event of widespread disturbances or coordinated attacks on staff.

By its nature, the decision to lockdown all or part of a prison is subjective in nature. For example, is a shoving match between inmates worthy of a lockdown? In other instances, for example, multiple attempts at arson, a warden has no alternative but to lockdown.

Gaetz said that he was working to limit the duration, extent and frequency of lockdowns at Menard as are wardens at other prisons in Illinois. There are signs of success.

In fiscal year 2008, Menard was locked down for 181 days. In fiscal year 2009, that number fell to 112. A similar decline was noted across the IDOC’s 28 prisons. In fiscal year 2008 there were a total of 1,107 days spent in lockdown. In 2009 that number fell to 446. (See chart below).

The John Howard Association is pleased to see that Gaetz was intent on reducing lockdowns at Menard and that IDOC as a whole has cut their number. Gaetz new position as Southern Region Director bodes well for continued improvement on this issue.

The Association will continue to monitor the situation regarding lockdowns within IDOC.

Survey Reports