SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois authorities conducted a "mass shakedown" of guards and other prison employees last week, taking the unusual step of searching workers as they left correctional facilities and sparking allegations of reprisal for public complaints and leaked information to the news media, according to interviews and a document obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
An email written by a Department of Corrections administrator was sent to 10 southern Illinois prison wardens, telling them to conduct the shakedowns, on July 19. It was time stamped just 18 minutes after about a dozen workers began a public forum in the state Capitol to complain about conditions at Illinois prisons.
Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano declined comment Monday on the email obtained by the AP. She previously would not confirm that the searches were coordinated, but said such searches are a "routine security measure" to control banned materials, which range from cellphones to weapons.
The dustup over the pat-downs comes as Gov. Pat Quinn pushes a cost-cutting plan to shutter several state correctional facilities, including next month's scheduled closure of the "supermax" prison in Tamms. Prison workers have fiercely resisted that idea, fearing increased violence if currently isolated gang members are moved elsewhere.
The searches also began just days after a published report about where some displaced Tamms inmates would go. That report was based on an internal Department of Corrections document.
Department policy allows searches of employees at any time — beginning, during or ending a shift — to ensure they are not carrying banned materials, from magazines and cigarettes to illegal drugs and weapons.
But the employees' union said the recent searches — body pat-downs as opposed to routine bag-checks and metal detector screenings — are rare, and called them retaliatory "intimidation" of employees for speaking out. The department denies that claim.
Kim Larson, an accountant at the prison in Danville for 12 years, said she has never gone through a shakedown upon leaving her 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift like she did on July 23.
"It was weird. Usually, they do it at the beginning of the shift, when we're coming in," she said. "I mean, what are we going to take out?"
A female officer accompanied her to a restroom where Larson emptied her pockets and submitted to a pat-down. Larson said that type of search, even when arriving at work, is so unusual that she can't remember when it last happened.
The searches were conducted the week of July 23 at as many as 15 prisons, according to the internal email, interviews with workers and their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The email from Ty Bates, an agency deputy director, went to wardens at ten prison facilities in southern Illinois and ordered them to "please ensure we conduct a mass shakedown on a shift of your choosing. We want to shake down staff leaving the facility," with the word "leaving" underlined in bold letters.
It was sent at 11:18 a.m., just minutes after the start of the workers' testimony critical of the governor's plans to close several prisons.
"We have no indication that there is any valid reason for these searches," Henry Bayer, AFSCME's executive director, said in a statement Monday. "Rather, the tactics and timing suggest they are part of a retaliatory effort by the administration to intimidate whistleblowers."
Solano, the prisons spokeswoman, said last week that the department "has full authority to search employees whenever it chooses" to ensure they aren't bringing in or helping move banned materials. "This is one such measure the department is taking to ensure safety and security inside the prisons," she said.
Solano denied that the department retaliates against staff and said employees are encouraged to report problems to the Office of the Executive Inspector General.
Quinn, a Democrat, wants to close the prison in Tamms and a women's prison in Dwight to save money. He said Tamms is underused and too expensive despite advocates' contention that its isolation of troublemakers reduces problems in other prisons which critics say are too crowded.
There are currently about 48,000 inmates in a system designed for 33,000. The department had 16,000 employees in 2002, but just more than 11,000 in June.
Criticism of the closure plan has increased after reports about violence and Tamms' shutdown.
The AP reported earlier this month, after tipped by people knowledgeable about the prisons, on a string of violent incidents and an inmate drug overdose in the previous six weeks.
Days after the workers union's public forum at the Capitol, Lee Enterprises newspapers in Illinois reported on an internal Department of Corrections memo that designated nine Tamms inmates for transfer to prisons out of state.
That prompted lawmaker complaints that Tamms should stay open and resulted in a letter to the newspapers from Corrections chief executive Jerry Buscher, warning that publication of the material would be viewed "as attempting to promote disorder within the prison system."
Union spokesman Anders Lindall said Corrections officials told the union the shakedowns were necessary because of a recent inmate cell search that turned up cellphones. Solano confirmed that contraband was found but would not comment further.
Toby Oliver, a correctional lieutenant at Tamms who was stabbed by an inmate at Stateville in 1995 and has criticized Tamms' closure, called it "coincidental" that the shakedowns began two days after the newspaper report. He said he never remembers an end-of-shift shakedown.
"What is coming out of the institution seems to be the priority," Oliver said. "You'd think it would be the other way around."
Contact John O'Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor