Family members of an inmate who died of suspected abuse at Mt. Sterling West Illinois Correctional Center said senior state officials ignored prison abuse for nearly a decade.
Chicago Attorney Jon Erickson and family members of Larry Earvin, 65, held a press conference at the Thompson Center in Chicago on Wednesday, claiming Governor JB Pritzker, Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus all ignored the calls. by civil rights lawyers to combat a pattern of violent abuse documented by correctional officers against inmates at Mt. Sterling installation. Erickson says it’s the height of hypocrisy to fight for equality and then allow the three keepers to receive a salary on paid administrative leave while Earvin’s family don’t get anything: “I think it is. t is blatant hypocrisy shown by this administration and in particular Attorney General Kwame Raoul. claiming they are for police accountability and racial justice, and yet they are paying tax dollars to defend those officers who brutally murdered Mr. Earvin. It’s the height of hypocrisy and betrayal that the state of Illinois is giving these officers nearly half a million dollars in paid time off while choosing to deny justice to Larry Earvin’s family.
In a scathing report released Tuesday by Chicago’s WBEZ, a former staff member at the facility confirmed that prisoners were routinely taken by a group of correctional officers to an area outside the prison’s isolation unit where no cameras could reach, what is called a “blind spot”, and then beat the inmates. According to a prison report obtained by WBEZ, a member of the nursing staff had told another member of staff what had happened to Larry Earvin a few days before his death in June 2018. She told her colleague that one of the others guards, Blake Haubrich, had cornered her and told her “she had to stay away from what is going on out there”. The exchange is documented in an incident report filed by the employee to whom the story was told. Haubrich has not been criminally charged for Earvin’s death, but is named in a civil lawsuit brought by Earvin’s family for the alleged beating. According to documents reviewed by WBEZ, Haubrich has also been accused of assaulting prisoners during transfers in isolation, including in the alleged blind spot. Haubrich continues to work for the Illinois Correctional Service, but is on paid administrative leave.
WBEZ obtained video footage of the Earvin beating incident in October 2020 after two years of asking for it to be released to the public. Due to status prisons, prison video footage is not subject to FOIA requests for security reasons. Earvin died on June 26, 2018 of blunt trauma to the chest and abdomen at a Springfield hospital, just months before his scheduled discharge.
The Illinois Department of Corrections responded to the WBEZ article after a request from WLDS News. Lindsay Hess, IDOC’s public information officer, responded with the following response in a written statement:
Protecting the safety of staff and those sentenced to IDOC detention is the top priority of this administration. Under the leadership of Director Rob Jeffreys, we have stepped up security measures statewide. These measures include, but are not limited to:
* The installation of 79 new cameras at the Western Illinois Correctional Center over the past year.
* Institution of a unit management system in several institutions, including western Illinois, to create greater contact between counselors, security personnel and those in custody. This approach increases communication possibilities and improves the Department’s responsiveness to the concerns of incarcerated persons.
* Hiring a lawyer to serve as the chief inspector. Chief Latoya Hughes is responsible for overseeing the statewide complaints system and identifying the reforms needed to ensure the process is fair, consistent and meets the needs of the incarcerated population.
Due to an ongoing dispute, no further information can be provided at this time.
Background: Since the incident, all staff at the Western Illinois Correctional Center have received additional training in de-escalation techniques and effective communication. The course has been implemented statewide and is a requirement for all new employees. In addition, a new director has been appointed to manage the facility.
Erickson says the reforms are good but they don’t hold the guards accused of assaulting Earvin and others to account: “They can institute all these very good and necessary reforms on the ground within these facilities, but without accountability, they do no good. When the governor and attorney general refuse to hold those responsible and refuse to be accountable to the families of the victims, they create a culture within the prison system that allows this conduct to continue. If a correctional officer knows that he can abuse prisoners without being held financially responsible and that the state will not be held financially responsible, then there will be no real change. Until there is real liability in being held accountable by our legal system which is designed to compensate victims and then use other laws to deny liability, that is not really going to change.
Federal authorities launched an investigation into Earvin’s death, and in December 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois indicted Todd Sheffler of Mendon, Willie Hedden of Mt. Sterling and Alex Banta of Quincy for assaulting Earvin “without legal justification while he was tied up and handcuffed behind his back and posing no physical threat to the accused or other correctional officers.” The federal indictment also alleges that the guards falsified reports of the incident and misled police when they denied knowing about the assault. Hedden has since pleaded guilty to violating civil rights in the case in March. Banta and Sheffler are due on trial next week.
During the WBEZ investigation, they also discovered that eight other prisoners have filed charges for beatings that allegedly took place in the prison “blind spot” near the isolation unit. Five of the cases concern at least one of the guards indicted in the deaths of Earvin, Hedden, Sheffler or Banta. Three others involved Haubrich. WBEZ reports that the state paid to settle three of the cases. A judge sided with the department against one detainee and dismissed another for technical reasons. The other three cases are still pending before the courts.
Erickson says that the Earvin case, the Earvin family lawsuit, and the rest are civil rights cases. He says the systems are in place to ignore the civil rights of prisoners because of the crimes they have committed: “The trial has its roots in the Civil Rights Act which was enacted shortly after the end of civil war to fight against lynchings. The part of the law to which the lawsuit refers is often referred to as the “Ku Klux Klan law”. It is about civil rights. These are civil rights in their simplest form. We are talking here about racial justice and criminal justice at an intersection. When taking a population, keep them away from family members, relatives and those who can watch over them and take them into custody behind the brick and mortar walls of a prison subject to chance and behavior. capricious security personnel and prison, it is a recipe for disaster. Erickson also says that Earvin’s case is also one of a need for more mental health services for prisoners. He believes that the current reform in this area is starting to take shape and help the prison population.
Criticism of Erickson on behalf of the family goes to the current state government. He says he is not challenging the state employees union, AFSCME: “AFSCME is doing what it is supposed to do. They are supposed to represent their members for better or for worse. I don’t dispute that, but it doesn’t relieve the governor and the attorney general to do what they’re supposed to do and it’s supposed to be the responsibility of the police, racial justice and certainly to deliver justice and compensate the victims’ families in these brutal cases. They are perfectly happy to keep these correctional officers on the payroll, to put them on administrative leave. One of the officers is currently on the payroll, and it was an officer who was involved in at least 3 other hits in that blind spot at Western. He is also the officer who allegedly threatened a nurse according to WBEZ who acted as a whistleblower. She filed a report several days after Mr Earvin’s beating, saying she was aware this had been happening in this blind spot in western Illinois for a very long time. It is a systemic problem. It’s persistent. She said there was victim after victim brought to the health care unit who had been beaten by the guards. She was stuck in a hallway and told to stay out of it and go about her own business, and not stick her nose where it doesn’t belong. This is clearly witness intimidation, and the person who did it is still on the payroll. “
The family seeks compensatory and punitive damages as part of the lawsuit. Governor JB Pritzker’s office and Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office did not return comments on the case.