(MCT) — CHICAGO — The daring overnight escape last week of two convicted bank robbers who descended several stories from their federal jail cell in the South Loop on a rope made of bedsheets was a marvel to many for the ingenuity it required.
But the escape also was a serious security breach at a building that has long been criticized for less publicized, more routine problems.
Those familiar with the inner workings of the Metropolitan Correctional Center say the concrete high-rise facility is overcrowded. Though intended as a pretrial jail, it has become more of a long-term prison that houses inmates for up to five or six years, they say.
Critics also complain of inconsistent job performance by the guards, some of whom have been accused of crimes while on duty, including smuggling contraband. Some observers say the MCC, like other federal correctional facilities, is stretched thin by federal budget cuts.
“You have a very overcrowded, underfunded situation in which people charged with the responsibility for caring for all of this are overwhelmed,” said defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback, who has made countless visits to the MCC over the years.
The 28-story building houses about 700 inmates awaiting trial, sentencing or placement in a prison to serve a sentence.
Joseph “Jose” Banks and Kenneth Conley escaped in the early morning of Dec. 18. Banks was caught just two days later, but Conley, remained at large Tuesday.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesman refused to comment.
But one facet of the investigation is whether a guard who monitors the security cameras in a control room had left the post to help with bed checks. If true, that would expose both the staffing issues and the risk of housing inmates for long periods, which leaves them plenty of time to learn the rhythms and routines of the building. Banks had been in custody since September 2008.
“The prisoners watch us,” said Dale Deshotel, national president of the union that represents federal prison workers. “They’re in there all day watching when the officers go to do their reports. They know when the officer is coming for a shakedown. They look for holes, for opportunities.”
Deshotel and a local union official also complained that budget cuts in 2005 hit the entire prison hard in terms of staffing.
A 24-hour foot patrol around the perimeter of the building has been cut back to a 10 p.m to 7 a.m. shift, said the union official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
And, according to the official, who began his career as a guard at the jail, the outside foot patrol is also often called inside to help.
Prison officials have not said whether a guard was monitoring security cameras when Banks and Conley rappelled down the side of the building . But the union official said those guards are often pulled off their posts every couple of hours for about 30 minutes to help with bed check rounds.
Banks and Conley were last accounted for at 10 p.m. Dec.17. They were next seen about 2:40 a.m. the following morning on a downtown security camera hopping into a taxi about five blocks from the building.
It is possible they eluded a midnight bed check. Clothing and other items had been stuffed underneath their covers to make it appear they were sleeping, and guards typically do visual head counts with a flashlight, authorities said.
Even with the staffing issues, the union official remained surprised that Banks and Conley pulled off their escape.
“I don’t know how they did it,” he said. “I really thought that place was escape-proof. ... I’m embarrassed, as are all the employees. Something obviously went wrong.”
Other lawyers represent clients at the MCC have complaints not just about the lack of staff but the quality of who is working there.
Thomas Anthony Durkin said that over the years he has noticed a deterioration of the way guards handle attorneys trying to visit clients, saying they are alternately lazy, rude or incompetent. He and other attorneys spoke of hour-plus waits to get inside to meet with clients.
“Things got so bad over there that I refuse to go over there unless it’s an absolutely emergency with one of my clients,” Durkin said. “They’ve made it absurd. I think the place is a nightmare.”
The attorneys claim there is no predictability to a visit either.
“My experience with the MCC is (that) how well the rules are followed depends on who is working,” defense attorney Andrea Gambino said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Contraband has been discovered inside the building, sometimes smuggled during a visit or with the help of staff, according to court records and attorneys. Charges have been brought against guards in the past.
Recently, accused drug trafficker Saul Rodriguez testified to a federal jury that he obtained a cellphone at the MCC after his wife sneaked it in and taped it to the underside of a bathroom sink in a restroom for visitors.
But Gambino, who represented the defendant Rodriguez testified against at the trial, has challenged that story in court documents, suggesting that the phone slipped in through the hands of guards and inmates assigned to a daily work program at a warehouse outside the MCC.
One court filing references a longtime guard who was recently suspended for “smuggling phones, drugs and other contraband into the MCC for inmates.” The union confirmed that a guard had been recently put on “indefinite suspension.”
Former Illinois state official Scott Fawell, who spent about eight months at the MCC for corruption, said he thought illegal items were sometimes smuggled in through the kitchen when deliveries arrived. And the inmate searches that were done after each visit with a loved one could be not only spotty but also negligent, said Fawell, an aide to convicted former Gov. George Ryan.
“Some things that got in there, I don’t think got in by chance,” he said.
Officials at the MCC did not respond to a request for an interview. And a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons did not answer specific questions about the number of infractions or incidents at the MCC or about the overcrowding concerns.
But even some of the Chicago attorneys noted that the staffing and security concerns at the MCC are probably not unlike those at many federal prisons. The entire system, Steinback said, has struggled to keep up with an influx of inmates who flooded the system under stiffer drug laws.
“There are an awful lot of good administrators who do care. And they can’t go out and publicly complain,” Steinback said.
While the command and control of the building is a crucial issue, it is not the only one, attorneys said. There are other questions about medical conditions, including for those prisoners who spend months locked in isolation or suffering due to alleged inadequate health care.
Although the John Howard Association prison reform organization monitors many state and county prisons in Illinois, it does not watchdog federal facilities, Executive Director John Maki said.
“These places, they are really expensive, and we ask them to perform a very important function,” Maki said. “And there really is no oversight.”
The Justice Department’s inspector general does monitor infractions by guards at federal facilities, but its most recent report makes no mention of any such cases at the MCC. And it does not address other complaints, such as the adequacy of health care.