SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois authorities took the unusual step of searching guards and other prison employees for contraband as they left at least seven facilities last week, sparking worker allegations that the checks may have been reprisals for complaints about overcrowding and understaffing and inside information leaked to the news media, workers and union officials told The Associated Press.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano would not confirm that the searches had intensified, but she said they are a routine security measure to control banned materials 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 a "supermax" prison in Tamms. The move has been fiercely resisted by prison workers who fear increased violence if currently isolated gang members are moved elsewhere.
The searches began just days after prison workers complained publicly in Springfield about prison conditions and followed a newspaper report about where some displaced Tamms inmates would go. That report was based on an internal Corrections document.
The employees' union said such searches are rare and may constitute "retaliatory harassment," which the Corrections agency denied.
Employee searches started July 23 at prisons in Danville, East Moline, Pontiac and Taylorville; the Menard prison in Chester; the Shawnee lockup in Vienna; and Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, according to workers and their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. At least some have occurred when workers punched out.
Illinois Department of Corrections 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 Kim Larson, an accountant at the Danville prison for 12 years, said she never received a pat down before when she left her 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift.
"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?"
She said no one told the employees the reason for the search, which for Larson involved going to a restroom with a female officer, emptying her pockets and undergoing a pat down of her body.
Larson said that type of search, even when arriving at work, is so unusual that she can't remember the last time she had to go through any security measure other than the daily inspection of bags and walk through a metal detector.
Solano would not say where pat downs occurred or the reason behind them.
"The department has full authority to search employees whenever it chooses ... to ensure that employees are not participating in the movement or introduction of contraband inside the facilities," Solano said. "IDOC is vigilant in keeping contraband out of the facilities, and this is one such measure the department is taking to ensure safety and security inside the prisons."
It's conceivable that information leaked from a prison would be in paper form because correctional officers, for instance, don't have continuous access to email. But AFSCME is more concerned that the action may be aimed at gagging staffers.
"Coordinated shakedowns of staff are nearly without precedent in anyone's memory," AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said. "To do this at the same time union members are coming forward as whistleblowers to reveal the dangerous consequences of the administration's closure plans reeks of retaliatory harassment."
Solano denied that the department retaliates against staff but said, instead, the agency "encourages employees to use the proper process" for reporting problems to the Office of the Executive Inspector General.
Quinn's announcement of the prison closure plan has been followed by several reports of troubling incidents inside correctional facilities.
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.
AFSCME members and correctional workers came to Springfield two weeks ago and publicly testified against closing prisons because of inmate overcrowding and understaffing. Illinois prisons currently hold about 48,000 inmates in a system designed for 33,000. The number of employees has fallen from more than 16,000 in 2002 to less than 12,000.
Days after AFSCME's public forum, the (Decatur) Herald & Review reported on an internal Corrections memo that designated nine Tamms inmates for transfer to prisons out of state. That prompted lawmaker complaints that Tamms should stay open because other Illinois prisons couldn't control some of the state's worst criminals.
The Tamms supermax isolates gang leaders and violent troublemakers from the rest of the incarcerated population, stifling problems at other prisons, advocates say. Quinn says it's underused and too expensive and wants it closed, along with a prison in Dwight.
The Decatur report prompted a letter to the newspaper from Corrections executive chief Jerry Buscher. It warned that publishing the information could jeopardize the safety of guards and inmates and would be viewed "as attempting to promote disorder within the prison system."
Buscher sent a similar letter to The Associated Press after a reporter asked Solano about information from internal documents the AP had obtained.
Lindall said corrections officials told AFSCME the pat downs are necessary because officials recently found inmates with cellphones during a search at Stateville prison in Joliet. Solano confirmed authorities found contraband earlier this month at Stateville but would not comment further because an investigation is ongoing.
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 pat downs began two days after the Decatur newspaper report.
He said he never remembers an end-of-shift pat down.
"What is coming out of the institution seems to be the priority," Oliver said. "You'd think it would be the other way around."
John O'Connor can be contacted at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor .