Report: Ill. inmates feared ‘aggressive cellmates’

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City-_Suspicious_prison_killings.jpgThis undated photo provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections shows inmate Donald Hazzard. Hazzard, 23, has been charged with murdering his cellmate at the Menard Correctional Center in Menard, Ill. Randolph County State’s Attorney Jeremy Walker says Donald Hazzard allegedly beat 64-year-old Yusuf Abuzir in their cell Jan. 25. Abuzir died in the prison infirmary Feb. 25. Abuzir’s death is one of three cases of inmates dying under suspicious circumstances at Menard since Jan. 31. (AP Photo/Illinois Department of Corrections)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Inmates at a maximum-security prison in southern Illinois reported concern about “aggressive cellmates” shortly before a string of killings at the penitentiary, according to a report by an independent group.

The John Howard Association said several older inmates at Menard Correctional Center were anxious about the “younger and aggressive” inmates they were housed with when the prison monitoring group visited Menard Correctional Center in December. A report the organization filed late Tuesday also noted that inmates serving long sentences who are housed with inmates facing shorter stretches “can be problematic.”

Three inmates at the prison in Chester, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis, have been killed since Jan. 31, authorities said.

One involved a convicted murderer serving five life sentences who allegedly beat and strangled a younger cellmate who had 2½ years left behind bars. Another involved a 64-year-old inmate who was allegedly beaten by his 23-year-old cellmate.

Violence in the state’s correctional system, including inmate assaults on staff members, has drawn a spotlight because of crowding. There are more than 49,000 inmates in facilities designed for 32,100.

“Tensions are very high due to the crowding,” said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association. “The crowding is what exacerbates everything, here. Prisons, Menard in particular, have a history of violence, and heightened tensions, but the crowding has made everything more tense. When bed space is so limited, it complicates ordinary operations, from getting food into a facility to housing assignments.”

Randolph County State’s Attorney Jeremy Walker told The Associated Press Wednesday that he filed a murder charge Tuesday in the third case, against 38-year-old Frank Wings. Wings is accused of fatally strangling his cellmate, 35-year-old William Crowder, on March 26.

Wings has been transferred to the maximum-security lockup in Pontiac. Walker said he faces a preliminary hearing May 23. Wings’ attorney, Lucas Liefer of Red Bud, declined comment on the case.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano stressed “an extensive review process” matches cellmates based on physical age and size, length of sentence, level of aggression and history of violence, gang affiliation and more. She said the inmate deaths have prompted officials to carefully review the policies.

“Inmates may request a cell change with security or counseling staff at any time,” Solano said. “The department carefully considers all requests and approves or denies based on the safety and security of inmates and facility.”

Walker said the last Menard inmate homicide was in 2004. Corey Fox, serving a life sentence at Menard for a 2001 murder, killed a cellmate who was a first-time offender sent to Menard when he tested positive for crack cocaine in the minimum-security prison in which he had been held.

Fox was later exiled at Tamms Correctional Center, the “supermax” prison for the system’s “worst of the worst” that Gov. Pat Quinn ordered closed at the end of last year to save money. Its closure, and that of the women’s prison in Dwight, which was shuttered last month, has been held up by Corrections Department critics who say they’ve contributed to the crowding.

Wings, serving a 25-year sentence for armed robbery and scheduled to be released in 2023, is similar in age and sentence duration to his alleged victim, who was scheduled to be released in 2021. But Wings is listed at 6-foot-1, 244 pounds, compared with Crowder, who was 5-foot-10, 170 pounds.

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