stymie efforts to find
out how it happened
BY JIM BUTTS
Dixon Correctional Center employees complained publicly in April about understaffing at the prison, faulty equipment and blind spots in hallways.
They wanted to counter campaign-season claims by Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration that Illinois prisons were getting safer while budget cuts caused staffing levels to fall. Most of all, they warned that a serious incident like an escape or a killing was inevitable if staffing levels remained low.
One month later, their concerns became reality.
On May 11, shortly before 12:45 p.m., John R. Spires, a convicted rapist serving a 240-year sentence, grabbed a female prison psychologist in the prison's psychiatric wing. According to court records, Spires dragged the woman to a storage closet where he barricaded himself, threatening to harm her with an improvised metal blade.
During the 25-hour standoff that ensued, police and prosecutors contend Spires raped his hostage before she was eventually freed. He was charged with forcible detention, armed violence, aggravated kidnapping and two counts of aggravated sexual assault.
In addition to following the case through the court system, Sauk Valley Newspapers has been trying to determine how this incident happened, and why the warnings of prison guards a month earlier were not heeded.
Working through the process outlined by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, this newspaper has repeatedly requested information from the Illinois Department of Corrections about the incident - how it happened, what contributed to it and how it may be prevented in the future - as well as general information about the security situation at Dixon Correctional Center, which employs more than 500 area men and women.
In response, the IDOC has either denied the requests or given out "as little information as possible," said SVN Publisher Trevis Mayfield.
"The response is disappointing. It is ridiculous that the Department of Corrections thinks the taxpayers don't deserve to know what's going on inside that fence," Mayfield said. "Ultimately it boils down to accountability. Government should be accountable to the taxpayers."
On Aug. 31, the paper filed its first Freedom of Information request, asking for the number of staff on duty the days of the hostage situation, why the man accused in the incident was apparently allowed to walk freely in the prison, and the overall number of assaults on staff by inmates.
On Sept. 25, the state denied SVN's request for specific information about Spires, the 51-year-old inmate convicted more than 20 years ago of four rapes in Cook County, who was reportedly allowed to work as a janitor prior to the hostage situation.
The IDOC denied the request because he is the subject of an ongoing investigation. Also, much of Spires' personal information is confidential and protected from Freedom of Information Act requests, the IDOC said.
Mayfield said the public deserves to know why a convicted rapist was "walking freely in that prison."
The initial information request also asked for details about staffing conditions the days of the hostage situation. Specifically, SVN had requested information on how many staffers were working, their hours and where they were posted from May 11 through May 13.
IDOC Spokesman Derek Schnapp said releasing the information would pose a security risk.
"We're puzzled by how releasing information on the number of staff on duty during an incident that already has happened could pose any type of present or future security risk," said SVN's Executive Editor Robert Berczuk. "By using phrases like 'security risk,' the state merely is hiding behind bogeyman language instead of providing us relevant information the public has a right to know."
The paper filed a second Freedom of Information request on Oct. 30, seeking the total number and details on all inmate-on-staff assaults at the Dixon Correctional Center during the last 10 years. It also requested a list of all Freedom of Information requests related to the Dixon Correction Center that the IDOC has received during the same time period.
Inmate-on-staff assault statistics have been highly debated between government officials and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the union which represents prison workers. Blagojevich has pointed to the numbers as proof Illinois prisons are getting safer, even as the number of staff falls. Union officials say the falling assault statistics aren't accurate.
The IDOC's response to the second request gave only a yearly number of assaults - an average of about 25 assaults annually the past 10 years and an average of about 22 assaults on staff over the past five years. The state also provided a list of each Freedom of Information request it has received, but no details on the requests other than the person requesting the information and whether the request was fulfilled or denied.
The IDOC has yet to respond to SVN's request for details of each assault at the prison.
On Dec. 1, the paper filed an appeal of the second request, specifically citing how the partial response by the state was not sufficient. No written response from the IDOC has been received by the paper, as required by the act; however, Brian Fairchild at the IDOC's Freedom of Information office told the SVN reporter who made the request that it has been sent to Schnapp, the department's spokesman.
When Schnapp was contacted, he said he was surprised the request was sent to him, and that it could be "quite a research project."
Schnapp gave no time period for when the request may, if ever, be fulfilled.
"It seems to me that they are taking the approach that if they are drag it out long enough, we will forget and go away," Mayfield said. "That won't be the case. We know our obligation as a steward of the community. We will continue to press the issue."
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
Illinois' Freedom of Information Act is intended to open the government to all citizens by guaranteeing access to governmental records in whatever form they are maintained. The Act maintains a clear preference for access to public documents while still protecting legitimate governmental interests and the privacy rights of individual citizens.
The principal mandate of the Act provides that "(e)ach public body shall make available to any person for inspection or copying all public records." The remainder of the Act implements this requirement.
Source: Illinois Attorney General's office
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For more information about the act, and how it works, log on to: www. illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/ government/foia_illinois.html
Reach Jim Butts at 625-3600, 284-2222 or (800) 798-4085, ext. 570.