AP Exclusive: Guards at 7 Ill. prisons searched

By JOHN O'CONNOR | July 30, 2012 | 3:36 AM EDT

FILE - This Nov. 4, 2011 photo shows the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Ill. The Associated Press has learned that the Illinois Department of Corrections has searched guards departing at least half a dozen prisons over the last week beginning Monday, July 23, 2012. Shakedowns occurred this week at prisons in Danville, East Moline, Pontiac and Taylorville; Menard, the Shawnee lockup in Vienna and Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, according to workers and the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Paul Newton, File)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois officials have taken the unusual step of searching prison guards and other employees for contraband as they're leaving work.

The Associated Press has learned at least seven prisons conducted shakedowns last week. Workers and their union say the unusual end-of-shift checks are retaliation for whistleblowers speaking out about crowded prisons and Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to close the "supermax" Tamms lockup.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano says the searches are routine and meant to stop "movement" of contraband — from cellphones to weapons — in the prisons. She denied retaliation plays a role.

The department has the right to search employees at any time. But workers say they've never been patted down at the end of work and question whether officials are looking for people leaking confidential information.