SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The third inmate to die recently under suspicious circumstances at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois was found in his cell Tuesday night, authorities said Wednesday.
Randolph County Coroner Randy Dudenbostel said the 35-year-old man, who was housed in the prison's segregation unit, was declared dead at 10:36 p.m.
Neither Dudenbostel nor Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano would release the man's name. Dudenbostel said an autopsy has been scheduled for Thursday.
The prison in Chester, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis, was locked down while an investigation got under way, Solano said.
The deaths — which so far have resulted in murder charges against one former Menard prisoner — come at a critical time for Gov. Pat Quinn's Corrections Department. With critics complaining about packing more than 49,100 inmates in a system designed for 33,000, there have been other violent attacks. A Pontiac guard who was beaten in January required facial reconstructive surgery. In an early February fracas, up to 15 inmates attacked two Menard guards and a chaplain.
"There's no question that violent incidents appear to be on the rise down there," Randolph County State's Attorney Jeremy Walker said of Menard, adding that his office is handling several other cases of alleged staff assaults by inmates and possession of "shanks," or homemade weapons.
Although Tuesday's victim at Menard was in the maximum-security prison's segregation unit, he had a cellmate. Authorities would not comment on that prisoner's whereabouts at the time.
The death was the third deemed "suspicious" since Jan. 31, when 25-year-old Jason Hall was found in his segregation unit cell. Hall had been serving a 13-year sentence for vehicular hijacking with a weapon and was scheduled to be released in September 2015.
Randolph County State's Attorney Jeremy Walker said Hall's former cellmate, James Amison, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder. One count alleges Amison beat Hall's head and face with his fists in what Walker called an unprovoked attack. The other count contends Amison strangled Hall.
Amison has since been transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center. He is already serving five life sentences, including three for murder, and is due in Randolph County court April 8. His court-appointed attorney, James Kelley of Sparta, said the 40-year-old Amison would plead not guilty and "mount a vigorous defense."
Walker said it appears he'll also file criminal charges in the Feb. 25 death of 64-year-old Yusuf Abuzir, serving a life sentence for a 2008 shooting death in Cook County. After an altercation with his Menard cellmate a few weeks earlier, Abuzir died in the prison's health care unit, authorities said.
Critics claim violence is on the rise because of overcrowding and understaffing. Despite the record population, Quinn, a Democrat, ordered the money-saving closures of five correctional facilities, including the high-security Tamms prison in far southern Illinois in early January and the women's maximum-security lockup in Dwight, which is in process.
Dwight, which had more than 1,000 inmates a month ago, was down to fewer than 140 on Tuesday, according to state records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Quinn supports prisons director S.A. "Tony" Godinez and reappointed him to a two-year term in the $150,228 job. Godinez's reappointment must be confirmed by the Senate.
Corrections also began the release last week of well-behaved inmates eligible for credit on their sentences under a program Quinn signed into law last year. The law tightened restrictions on a program the governor halted in 2009 after the AP revealed secret short-cuts the department took that released 1,700 inmates — hundreds of them violent — within weeks or even days of their arrival in prison.