Illinois Inspector General Finds Prisoner Labor Used to Benefit DOC Employees
by Casey J. Bastian
In a report released on October 24, 2021, the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General (OIG) found that state prisoners had been improperly used to wash cars, shine shoes, give haircuts and sell wood or plants for the benefit of a fund that finances parties, golf outings and prizes for employees of the state Department of Corrections (DOC).
OIG began its investigation in June 2017 after an anonymous complaint was filed alleging that employees at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center (PCC) were violating rules to raise funds for their Employee Benefit Fund (EBF).
An EBF is permitted by DOC to allow prison guards and other employees to raise money to pay for perks like holiday parties, golf outings, colleagues’ funerals and other private functions. DOC directives say the money should primarily come from “profits from vending machines and the employee commissaries,” as OIG noted. But investigators found that 99% of 2017 EBF revenue at PCC was from other sources.
So where did the extra cash come from? Fundraisers—many featuring uncompensated prisoner labor. OIG found evidence that prisoners shined shoes, gave haircuts, washed cars and even sold wood and plants during successful fundraising activities for an EBF.
This is a violation of the state Unified Code of Corrections, which strictly limits the types of labor prisoners may perform and specifies that a “committed person’s labor shall not be sold, contracted or hired out by the [DOC] except under this article,” 730 ILCS 5/3-12-2(a) et seq. Nothing in this code section allows for the uses of prisoner labor OIG reported finding. One unidentified DOC employee offered his negative sentiments about the practice, calling it “bad optics,” “bad ethically” and “bad morally.”
“It’s really hard for me to just honestly stomach the idea that...employees benefit from offender labor,” he added.
Investigators also found other questionable practices that enhanced EBF revenue. State prison employees solicited items to sell from their friends, purchased items from friends and acquaintances without checking to see if they were state vendors, solicited donations from businesses by offering to send customers their way and performed EBF tasks while on the clock discharging their DOC duties.
Moreover, OIG quickly discovered that these improprieties were not unique to PCC. In fact, such conduct was found statewide, and the investigation was expanded to three other institutions, discovering that EBFs at each operated with almost no oversight. System-wide, OIG found that 80% of the revenue collected by EBFs in 2017—a whopping $771,008—was also from “other” sources.
Investigators interviewed then-DOC Chief of Staff Edwin Bowen, who said that EBFs were a “longstanding tradition at the [DOC],” adding he believed they are needed to alleviate pressure that staff is under. Bowen also acknowledged that the EBFs had likely “been operating outside the probably technically statutory authority forever.” OIG found reasonable cause that several of the allegations were “founded,” including that DOC Acting Director John Baldwin and Bowen mismanaged the EBFs, and that Baldwin and Bowen permitted prisoner labor to be used for purposes that violate the law.
Several OIG recommendations were adopted by DOC, including creating and implementing written rules governing EBFs; taking necessary steps to ensure that EBFs are operated in accordance with appropriate oversight mechanisms; implementing and conducting employee training concerning EBF activities; conducting regular audits to ensure compliance with financial regulatory requirements; and ceasing the use of prisoner labor during EBF events. See: In re John Baldwin and Edwin Bowen, OEIG for the Agencies of the Illinois Governor, Case No. 17-01266.
In the end, while DOC agreed to changes concerning EBFs, only one person was held to account: Bowen received a 30-day suspension, which on appeal was reduced to 15 days. Baldwin, who had stayed on at DOC after former Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) was replaced in January 2019 by incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), was then himself replaced four months later when Pritzker nominated Rob Jeffreys, who had served four months as Chief of Staff for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Sources: NPR Illinois, Jacksonville Journal-Courier, QuadCityTimes.com, Truthout.org
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