Broken elevators and radio “dead zones” are threatening the safety of corrections officers in Lake County Jail, some guards say, trapping them when the elevators stall and in one case delaying help for an officer who was attacked by an inmate.

Jail officials responded that they have fixed the main elevator issue, are replacing the radio system and maintain a safe facility. Both sides agree the jail remains significantly understaffed even as they have to handle dangerous defendants.

The issues came to light this week when Teamsters Local 700 sent the Tribune a copy of a letter to Sheriff Mark Curran, complaining about unsafe conditions at the jail.

Chronic problems with radios and elevators pose a “substantial risk to the safety of the officers,” according to the letter by Cass Casper, senior staff attorney for the union local.

The letter includes nine meeting notes or officer emails reporting problems with the radios or elevators from November through the end of January. The officers’ names were blacked out from the letter.

In December, officials confirmed, 18 officers were stuck on an elevator for about 25 minutes and said they were unable to transmit by radio. In some instances, officers have had to be rescued by ladder from elevators stuck between floors, and one officer recently injured his shoulder getting out.

One officer wrote in an undated email that a co-worker had recently been attacked by an inmate in the jail but that no additional precautions were taken. The officer was grabbed by the throat and thrown to the floor and was taken to a hospital with neck and back problems, Casper said.

“During this attack our response time was severely delayed due to one of two elevators being nonoperational,” the officer wrote. “I believe the safety and security of the staff is being neglected because of this issue.”

Another officer wrote that in light of what happened to his co-worker, “we need to have our concerns addressed and corrected before someone gets more seriously injured or God forbid killed.”

In addition to fixing the radios, that officer suggested more training in self-defense, including use of Tasers and batons. Another officer complained that he had to use his cellphone because his radio was out.

Undersheriff Ray Rose and Chief David Wathen, who oversees the jail, said some of the problems were being overstated but that steps had been taken to address them. They said the issues have occurred intermittently.

After one elevator brake failed in November, it was replaced, and the other elevator brake was replaced recently as a precaution, though both elevators were out of service for several days during repairs, they said.

The county also authorized spending more than $7 million to buy into a more robust Motorola STARCOM21 radio system, Rose said. Equipment is being installed, and the system is expected to be running by April.

The jail holds about 530 inmates patrolled in shifts by 189 corrections officers. By law and regulation, the inmates are required to get time to move about outside their cells. They do so 12 inmates at a time, with a lone officer to monitor each group, officials said.

If an officer gets attacked, he or she can radio for help. If officers fall down, sensors on their uniforms automatically activate an alarm.

The jail building dates to about 1988, Wathen said, so the equipment is old. The county has earmarked money next year to replace the elevators and recently installed new surveillance cameras and locker rooms.

He said the jail immediately goes into lockdown when there is an issue with the radios or elevators, keeping inmates in their cells to improve security.

Part of the problem, Wathen said, is that the elevators should handle only about 10 people, but the guards overload them at times, such as when they’re trying to get home at the end of a shift.

When the main communication channels for the radios go down, Wathen said, officers use a backup channel. When an officer was recently attacked, he said, records showed the response came quickly, in 1 minute and 40 seconds.

Several officers have been attacked in the jail over the years, Wathen said, adding that it seems more prevalent recently. Just this week, slaying suspect Benjamin Schenk was charged with assaulting an officer in the jail Feb. 12.

Officials said the officers’ union contract will expire toward the end of the year, and negotiations have begun with lieutenants.

The sheriff’s office needs to hire 21 or 22 new officers, Wathen said. “Certainly we’re concerned about staffing,” he said.

The president of the Teamsters local, Becky Strzechowski, called the safety issues “a travesty.”

She wrote that “not enough is being done to fix these problems and the potential risks are too great for us to stand by idly.”

This story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 18, 2016.

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