A recent investigation into the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) revealed that prison guards there have been using incarcerated individuals to wash their personal cars, give haircuts and shine shoes at fundraisers to benefit the prison staff — in other words, they have been using the labor of incarcerated people for their own personal gain.
One senior IDOC staff member admitted to state-employed investigators that these fundraisers were “bad optics.”
“It’s really hard for me to just honestly stomach the idea,” he told an investigator, that “employees benefit from offender labor.”
This information was revealed by an anonymous Pinckneyville prisoner in 2017. He claimed that Pinckneyville guards had raised improperly money for the so called Employee Benefit Fund (EBF). Established to provide various perks for prisoners, such as birthday parties, Christmas parties and retirement gifts, the EBF was intended to provide perks such as retirement gifts, retirement flowers, and Employee Appreciation Week.
The complaint was then triggered. investigation by the state’s executive inspector general’s office. It is not clear whether the complaint was filed by staff or a prisoner.
Once it was underway, the investigation soon found that the issues raised by the complaint “may not have been unique” to Pinckneyville. EBFs existed at all of the IDOC’s 25 adult prisons, and administrative headquarters in Springfield, bringing in almost $1 million in 2017.
As the senior IDOC employee told an investigator, he believed that the EBFs had become more prevalent because the current administration was “pushing to improve employee morale.” The EBFs were found by investigators to be open to potential fraud, and some included illegal raffles. Then-Acting IDOC Director John Baldwin feigned ignorance of the EBFs when questioned during the investigation, and said he had “no issue” with the use of prison labor.
Bianca Tylek founder and executive Director of Worth RisesA national organization that works to dismantle prison industry spoke with TruthoutMore information about #EndTheExceptionCampaign against prison labor, where prisoners are paid low wages for their prison jobs. “Those incarcerated, disproportionately Black and Brown people,” she said, “are still enslaved in many ways. They are forced to work under the threat of bodily harm.” They should be recognized as workers who have rights, who deserve a minimum wage, or commensurate wages, and worker protections. “If someone in prison gets hurt on the job, or if they get sick, they don’t get paid,” Tylek told Truthout.
The Illinois Department of Corrections guards made incarcerated people work for the benefit of those who were in charge of their captivity. This was even more exploitative than standard prison labor described by Tylek.
Additionally, EBFs were found by investigators to be open to potential fraud, to “waste” hours of staff time, and to include illegal raffles.
Fundraisers were a flagrant violation of IDOC Policy
IDOC policy states that EBF funds must only be purchased by guards from vending machines or commissary (a prison store with food, hygiene products, and office items for purchase). However, revenue for EBFs was largely from other sources during the 2012-2017 period under review. Fundraising efforts were responsible for 80 percent in 2017 of the nearly $1million raised for EBFs by Illinois prisons. A small, but not insignificant amount of this money was raised through prison labor. Between 2016 and 2018, fundraising at 18 facilities using prison labor raked in $56,300.
Crushion Stubbs spent 22-and-a half years in IDOC custody in several prisons including Logan, Pontiac and Lawrence. He was released on June 16, 2016 and now resides in Champaign. Stubbs told Truthout he is familiar with the “ins and outs” of prison labor. He was employed in the library, meatpacking, and gym. Illinois Correctional IndustriesAbout 900 people work in the custody to make furniture, clothing and other items like eyeglasses.
Stubbs recalls that the monthly pay scale for the jobs he did was between $50 and $150. When he first started, he said he was happy to be making money: “You actually think that it’s a come up.” Then he called home to tell family he was working, and they thought he was making minimum wage, “but you have to tell them you’re making slave wages, even though you work all day.” He soon realized, “I’m making in a month what most people are paid for in a day’s work.”
Stubbs said that he had seen other instances in which prison guards used prison labor for their own personal gain. He was not surprised when he heard about prison guards using prisoners labor to raise funds for their Employee Welfare Fund.
Stubbs recalled how, during his time in prison he had met other prisoners who worked for the prison administration. He told how some of them worked in barbershops, where they would give haircuts to officers for free. Truthout. He said that officers would also bring their laundry to be cleaned. Some officers brought their cars to automotive for repairs. Wood shops were the same: rather than constructing furniture for Habitat for Humanity, Stubbs said, “they were making playhouses for the officer’s daughter.”
IDOC Chief Describes Employee Benefit Funds as a “Longstanding Tradition”
The EBFs have been a “longstanding tradition” in Illinois prisons, IDOC Chief of Staff Edwin Bowen told investigators. Bowen began his career with IDOC in 1988. His colleagues had told Bowen that EBFs have been around since the 1960s. According to the investigation, Bowen “opined that they are necessary to ease the pressure that corrections staff are under.” The wardens oversee the EBFs at their own prisons and do not report to anyone. The EBFs had probably been outside statutory authority “forever,” Bowen guessed.
Investigators interviewed EBF chairmen at Pinckneyville prison as well as IDOC headquarters, Springfield. The chair at Pinckneyville confirmed that they held car washes, and that incarcerated people “sometimes” washed cars. In an attempt to justify this, the chair said incarcerated workers were paid for their labor, and that “they can refuse.” Records showed that the Pinckneyville EBF raised $5,923 between January 2016 and July 2017 from car washes. They also raised $402 through shoeshine sales.
At the IDOC’s administrative offices in Springfield, according to the committee chair, prison guards held car washes twice a week to raise money for their EBF funds during the warm seasons. Workers were brought in from nearby Taylorville prisons and Jacksonville prisons. As the EBF chair in Springfield confessed, the fundraisers largely benefitted “employees whose cars are washed.”
A System Ripe to Abuse
The Springfield EBF spent $30,000 annually on Christmas parties to employees. The average attendance was 300, which included both employees and guests. The hotel rental cost was $19,581 in 2016. Other expenses included food and beverages, as well as prizes and a DJ. The EBF awarded $8,000 in prizes in 2016. An EBF chair received a check for $6.100 in cash prizes. Nearly 50% of that was given to the Employees of the Year and their nominees. Such a system, the investigation concluded, was “ripe for fraud or abuse.”
An investigator was told by Sheridan prison’s EBF chair that Christmas parties were their largest expenditures. The alcohol tab for the Christmas party was $1,500. It was paid for using EBF money. Sheridan held several raffles and one raised $30,000 which was split equally between the winner of the raffle and EBF. These raffles were deemed illegal by the court and had to be stopped.
While the EBFs are supposed to benefit all prison employees, they were sometimes used for individual guards’ entertainment. EBFs were used, for example, to pay for four-person teams to play in a golf tournament. Pinckneyville’s EBF covered half of the $300 entrance fee for its team to compete in a golf scramble held in June 2017, a benefit for the Employee Benefit Fund at Menard prison. Dixon’s EBF sponsored the $320 entrance fee for a team, and Springfield’s EBJ paid $640 for two teams to participate in the same tournament held in 2016.
These benefits often took place in “prison towns” where the prison is a major employer and has a large impact on the community. When a 5K run was planned in Pinckneyville in 2016, the EBF chair claimed she called “every business” listed in the Yellow Pages to solicit donations. In 2017, she reached out to all the businesses that had made donations in 2017. In an email to potential sponsors, she wrote, “With over 470 employees, we believe we are the largest employer in Perry County.” Prison staff were “highly encouraged” to support those who sponsored the race. Law enforcement officers are indeed an unusually high numberPerry County. The investigation revealed that 22 businesses and government agencies were involved in the 2017 run.
These benefits were organized by prison staff who were allowed to use a lot of their time. It was discovered that the EBF chair sent over 600 emails regarding fundraising during the 5K race at Menard prison.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office sent out a letter on January 8, 2020, in response to the investigation, establishing new guidelines for EBFs. Bowen, IDOC Chief Of Staff, who was responsible for the funds, was given a 30-day suspension. He appealed and it was reduced to 15-days.
“To have state-sanctioned prison slavery is bad enough,” Tylek told Truthout, “and then to have personal slavery is unconscionable. Those things don’t stop at the car wash. They have no problem being masters and slavers, and that’s worrisome.”