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IG report shows systemic flaws in Illinois prison hiring

Outside a prison
WGLT file
Illinois Department of Corrections hiring practices at facilities, including the prison at Pontiac, have come under fire.

It started with a single simple case of nepotism. But an investigation by the state Executive Inspector General’s office showed a much more pervasive problem of preferential hiring practices and a startling lack of hiring policy within the division of the Department of Corrections tasked with keeping prisons safe and investigating alleged misconduct within the agency.

The policy vacuum in the Investigation and Intelligence and Investigations Division dates back decades.

A report by the inspector general to the Executive Ethics Commission released in September showed that IDOC Southern Region Commander of Investigations Larry Sims directed staff at the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton to hire a family member for an intelligence investigation job at the medium security prison.

The arrangement happened even though the family member, already a corrections officer, hadn’t initially applied for the post and a different person had been approved for the job, according to the IG report. An anonymous complaint tipped the state to begin investigating in February of 2020. A person with knowledge of the situation said the family member was Sims’ son.

Systemic issue

It wasn’t an isolated incident, investigators found, but a longstanding way to make assignments to the Investigations and Intelligence Division that happened outside of normal hiring practices. Recruitment for the posts often came from within the investigations division, or from prison facility management. The investigators also often had a different chain of command than regular correctional officers, further insulating the division from broader organizational review.

The division has more than 80 people performing full-time intelligence work, both within prisons and outside. The division mission is to make prisons safer, prevent crime, suppress gang activity among inmates, and to investigate misconduct by IDOC workers.

Sometimes, investigators work with police departments and other law enforcement agencies. They have a great deal of power. Other than prison management, intelligence investigators are the only IDOC workers who can access video and audio recordings of conversations by inmates with their relatives and friends, and email-like inmate messaging.

Investigators also can look at emails and internal messages of other correctional employees, according to the OEIG report.

“Basically, nobody else has access to the systems that Intel does,” one employee told IG investigators.

System impact

Tracking what inmates do and how they do it is important work. One state employee with specialty knowledge who did not wish to be identified told WGLT there is a different kind of inmate today than there was two decades ago.

“They are younger. They have more mental energy. And it’s not directed in a good way,” said the worker, who painted a picture of a savvy inmate still connected with the outside.

“The citizens they are leaving behind are very sophisticated on how to help them still have a touch of the world while being incarcerated,” said the worker. “If you don’t have a grasp of what technology is doing and how they are trying to outslick the corrections officers, we are going to have these problems.”

Yet, despite the crucial nature of the investigative division, the inspector general found many transfers are from simple correctional officer positions and the people who fill the slots often have no prior investigative experience.

“No official position description exists, and the position has never been posted centrally or available to the public,” said the OEIG report.

Sometimes, prison officials would read off position openings at roll calls. In other cases, the positions were filled by referral only. That flies in the face of multiple court rulings dating back decades that have tried to limit political hiring in state government and level the playing field for applicants based on qualifications.

IDOC administrators interviewed by the IG’s office suggested the job is a "detail" or "assignment" that is limited in duration. Investigators did not find that persuasive.

“It is clear that assignments to Intel exhibit none of the characteristics typically found in detail assignments,” said investigators.

None of the employees interviewed during the investigation had been told there were time limits on the appointment. Many remained in the posts for years, some more than a decade. The IDOC followed no union provisions regarding "details." Corrections workers told investigators even seniority didn’t matter in deciding which correctional officers got the jobs in intel.

“IDOC has for years engaged in mismanagement by effectively creating a position that does not follow appropriate hiring protocols and policies. Doing so…allows for the filling of these positions to be easily manipulated,” according to the report.

The lack of those hiring rules has consequences. The IG found people in the investigative division had training and assignment experience that gave them advantages for promotion when higher-level positions opened up. Insular hiring also can result in cronyism and a lack of diversity in a workforce.

As guards become investigators through the irregular referrals, they are given a 40-hour training course in investigative procedures. The worker who spoke with WGLT said that is not enough to produce a qualified investigator.

“No. Absolutely not,” said the employee. “Some of the internal investigators need more training.”

More reforms needed

Following the 1996 publication of a video made with infamous murderer Richard Speck partying in prison and making jocular comments about how good the life was behind bars, the state implemented reforms. Another scandal in that era, which revealed gang leader Larry Hoover was running a drug business from prison and taking delivery of 30-pound drug shipments behind bars, added to the pressure to change.

The worker told WGLT those reforms are long out of date and procedures have not kept pace with today’s inmates. Not searching for people with previous investigative experience, the source said, does a disservice to the state

“We’re still living off those changes and if you don’t pay attention the bad guys are thinking of ways to stay bad every day and thinking of ways to beat us every day. We have to be in the same arena they are in order to not lose the prisons. To me the department is only one incident away from a serious situation,” said the worker.

In fact, workers at Pontiac Correctional Center recently protested over safety concerns following a guard stabbing incident.

Commander Sims ended up retiring from his position as the department began disciplinary proceedings against him. A letter included in that report noted the anticipated punishment would have been a 30-day suspension.

The broader response was still under way in June.

“IDOC has drafted a preliminary plan for how it envisions modifying IID and will work with the Governor’s Office and CMS (Central Management Services) to refine and implement that plan. In the meantime, we are working with the existing staff at IDOC including the Acting Chief of Investigations to institute a number of intermediate changes,” said Scott Lerner, deputy general counsel to Gov. JB Pritzker, in a June 17 letter to the Inspector General.

Those include creating selection criteria for the jobs, job descriptions, ways to notify potential applicants, a formal application process, creating a formal chain of command and reporting structure for the division, making sure decision makers disclose potential conflicts of interest, requiring documentation for why people get hired, and creating annual performance reviews of those workers.

A WGLT source said in addition to Sims, other corrections administrators with some involvement in the case also have retired, yet at least one who allegedly participated in Sims' hiring scheme, the source said, remains in a senior position within the intel investigation unit.

Additional transparency sought

State Sen. Sally Turner, R-Lincoln, has two correctional facilities in her district. She found the report troubling.

“It’s my hope with anything that has to do with patronage or nepotism that it’s being looked into further. What are the roles of the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office and CMS (Central Management Services) and what have they put in place to prevent this from reoccurring?” said Turner.

Executive Ethics Commission reports do not go to lawmakers. They go to the governor's office. Sometimes, the commission publishes a redacted version of the report when wider issues, as in this case, are in play. Turner said having broader dissemination, including to lawmakers, might increase transparency.

“That creates an opportunity for us to examine it as well. When we don’t see those reports, we don’t know what’s going on or where it ended up,” said Turner.

The report attracted little attention after it was posted to a state website in September.

“When it has been six months, I think that’s quite a long time to see what those remedies are,” said Turner. “Where are we now and are we following the rule of law now?”

September was in the middle of election season. Turner smiled as she said she could not answer whether that factor might have affected the response to the report.

Agency response

IDOC is saying little.

“The department implemented initial changes to the process to immediately provide a more transparent selection process for these positions. These changes were outlined in our response to the OEIG. The department anticipates additional changes to the process,” said IDOC spokesperson Naomi Puzzello in an email response on Jan. 9.

IDOC declined to address these questions: What additional changes are you considering? How diverse is the current workforce in the intelligence and investigations unit? What’s the breakdown of male/female and white/people of color? Since the hiring process for that division has been so insular for so long, what other efforts will the department make to change the culture within it? Since there were no set qualifications for people in IID in the past, will the department do a backward look and increase training for those current workers who do not now meet new standards of hire?

Following the initial publication of the story, IDOC added this comment in response to a question about diversity.

"IDOC is a multicultural agency deeply committed to ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion. This commitment is at the forefront of our operations, hiring, policies and procedures, and training.  The Department changed it process to ensure advertisement of facility investigation and intelligence opportunities so all staff at the facility have awareness and equal access to apply. The Department also created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee to facilitate new initiatives for staff, which includes expanding recruitment efforts to promote increased diversity in staffing," said an agency statement.

The governor’s office referred WGLT questions to IDOC.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.