Quinn appoints new Corrections head

Eric Naing

New Illinois Corrections Director Michael Randle brings with him experience from a fellow big state but isn't making any promises of major changes just yet.

Gov. Pat Quinn announced Thursday that Randle will take over the top Illinois prison job after serving as a top official in Ohio's correctional system. Since 1990, Randle has worked with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections as an assistant director and mental health administrator among other positions.

He will oversee the nearly 80,000 inmates and parolees, 28 adult correctional facilities and 11,000 corrections employees in Illinois.

Though born in Chicago, Randle has lived in Ohio since his grade school years.

"Michael Randle has done just about any job you can do in a correctional setting. He's been a warden," said Gov. Quinn. "He understands first-hand what it is to be on the front line."

Randle replaces Roger Walker, who was appointed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2003, as head of the IDOC. Quinn cited Walker's health issues and a need for a "new direction" for the department as reasons for the change.

Tamms Correctional Center, a super-maximum prison in southern Illinois that has been compared to U.S. detention camps at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, is one issue that Quinn wants Randle to look at. Critics say the prison, where inmates are kept in isolation for up to 23 hours a day, creates mental problems for its inmates.

Randle said he has not had a chance to study the issue but acknowledged "there is concern when it comes to mental health and how you treat offenders in certain levels of confinement."

Unions representing corrections employees have also complained about the understaffing of Illinois prisons and have opposed Gov. Quinn's plan to make security staff work 12-hour shifts for three or four days a week, on an alternating schedule. Randle said he will look into the issue but emphasized that overtime is unavoidable in the correctional system.

"Some overtime is inherent," he said. "It's just the nature of the business."

Randle plans to visit all prison facilities in the state to discuss these problems and other issues concerning prisoners and prison workers. Despite knowing little or nothing about Randle, state legislators were eager to spell out their hopes for his priorities.

Rep. Julie Hamos, a Democrat from Evanston, is the sponsor of House Bill 2633, which would put limits on who could be housed at Tamms and would make it harder for inmates to be kept there for more than a year.

She was pleased that Randle had a background in mental health and wants him to pursue the issue.

"I hope that he will help think of ways to help mentally ill inmates in our entire corrections system, not just at Tamms," Hamos said.

Hamos and members of the prisoner advocacy group Tamms Year Ten planned to meet with Randle to discuss that measure.

Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, said the understaffing of Illinois prisons was "a chronic problem" and wondered if Randle would be able to address it.

"If we don't get staff levels to where they should be, something catastrophic might happen," said Bomke. "Is Mr. Randle going to be able to convince Quinn to bring staffing levels up?"

Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, was primarily concerned with Quinn's plan to make security staff work longer hours.

"They want to go to 12-hour days," he said. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Poe was also concerned that Quinn, who said he wanted the "best of the best" to head IDOC, chose someone from out of state.

"Out of 13 million in Illinois, we didn't have one qualified person in this state we could've hired?" wondered Poe.

Randle plans to move to Springfield with his wife and two children. He is set to begin work in June.

Eric Naing can be reached at (217) 782-3095 oreric.naing@sj-r.com.