SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Searches of inmates' cells following an assault on a correctional officer at the Menard prison turned up 21 homemade weapons, a prison union official said Friday.
Correctional Sgt. Kevin Hirsch told The Associated Press exclusively that tactical officers who searched prison cells reported finding 21 plastic or metal objects altered in a way that could cause injury. The 29-year veteran said it's the most he's seen found in a shakedown since the 1990s.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano countered that 13 weapons were discovered in the cell-by-cell check that followed the Sunday attack by two inmates. She would not describe the types of objects found.
Hirsch attributed the discrepancy to how "weapon" is defined. Some of the contraband might not have been completed, "but it can be used as a weapon even if it hasn't been sharpened yet." He noted others had undergone extensive work.
"The tactical officers described some of them as 'killers' because they were sharp enough and of adequate length to penetrate our bodies," Hirsch said.
Hirsch, himself a specially trained tactical team member, became Menard's local president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in September. He and AFSCME are using the assault and the weapons to bolster their argument against Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to close the Tamms "supermax" prison, where inmates in general prisons who are gang leaders, are violent or cause other trouble wind up isolated from fellow prisoners.
The Menard officer was attacked by two inmates Sunday, Hirsch said. Solano confirmed the assault and said weapons were found "in the area," but would not comment further because of an ongoing investigation, except to say that the inmates under investigation in the assault have been transferred to Tamms.
"The department handles these incidents with extreme seriousness," Solano said. "The case remains under investigation and as is standard practice, a shakedown was conducted at the facility this week resulting in 13 homemade weapons confiscated."
She would not comment on what materials were used to make them or whether other illegal items turned up. She said an investigation continues and those who had any prohibited articles will be punished.
Menard, a 134-year-old institution in Chester that holds 3,600 inmates in space designed for 3,100, has been locked down since the assault, meaning inmates are generally confined to their cells around the clock. That follows a lockdown in mid-May after a correctional officer had to fire a warning shot when two inmates refused to stop fighting.
Hirsch contended prison disturbances are increasing since the agency began more aggressively reintegrating Tamms inmates to other prisons. His union and law-and-order lawmakers believe Tamms is necessary to isolate prisoners who cause trouble or instigate it by ordering others. Critics say Tamms' forced isolation is inhumane and people stay there too long.
"There's a sense from the front lines that tensions are extremely high and that incidents of violence both among groups of inmates and against staff have increased of late," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31.
The General Assembly sent Quinn a budget last week with enough money to keep Tamms open — with plans to renovate it as a lower-level security lockup. The Democratic governor suggested if it stays open, it will be run "a different way."
Menard and another maximum-security house in Pontiac would get Tamms' current residents. Corrections has transferred 41 Tamms inmates to other prisons so far in 2012, as many as or more than in any of the four previous years. Since the AP started tracking their movement in March, 21 have transferred, with all but three going to Pontiac. Two were released on parole and one remains at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.
John O'Connor can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor