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 came to light after an anonymous individual at the Pinckneyville prison filed a complaint in 2017 alleging that guards had improperly raised money for the so-called Employee Benefit Fund (EBF), established to provide various perks for prison guards, including birthday parties, Christmas parties, funeral flowers, retirement gifts and Employee Appreciation Week.
The complaint then triggered an investigation by the state’s executive inspector general’s office. Whether the complaint was filed by a staff member or a person incarcerated at the prison is unclear.
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 Rises, a national organization working to dismantle the prison industry, spoke with Truthout about the #EndTheException campaign against prison labor, where people are paid dismal wages for 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.
In putting incarcerated people to work to directly benefit those overseeing their captivity, the guards from the Illinois Department of Corrections created a situation even more exploitative than the sorts of standard prison labor that Tylek described.
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 requires that EBF funds only come from purchases made by guards from vending machines and commissary (a store inside the prison with food, hygiene products and office items for sale). But during 2012-2017, the period being investigated, the majority of revenue for EBFs came from other sources. In 2017, 80 percent of the nearly $1 million raised for EBFs in Illinois prisons came from fundraising efforts. A small but not insignificant fraction of that money was raised through the use of prison labor. Between the fiscal years of 2016 to 2018, fundraisers at 18 facilities using prison labor brought in a total of about $56,300.
Crushion Stubbs did 22-and-a-half years in IDOC custody at several prisons, including Pontiac, Logan and Lawrence. He was released in 2016 and now lives in Champaign, Illinois. Stubbs told Truthout he is familiar with the “ins and outs” of prison labor. He worked jobs in the gym, library, bakery and meatpacking. Illinois Correctional Industries employs some 900 people in custody to make furniture, clothing, and items like eyeglasses.
Stubbs recalled the pay scale would vary between $50 to $150 a month at the jobs he worked. 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 based on other instances he had witnessed of prison guards using prison labor directly for their own personal gain, he was not surprised to hear about the prison guards using prison labor to raise money for their Employee Benefit Fund.
For example, Stubbs described how during his time in prison, he knew other incarcerated people who had jobs where they did favors for the prison administration. Some worked in the barbershops where officers would come in to get haircuts for free, he told Truthout. Officers would also bring their laundry in for cleaning, he said. And some officers would bring their own cars into automotive for repair. 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 started working for IDOC in 1988, and his colleagues had told him EBFs had 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 committee chairs at the Pinckneyville prison, and IDOC headquarters in 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 raised an additional $402 from shoeshines.
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 from nearby Taylorville and Jacksonville prisons. As the EBF chair in Springfield confessed, the fundraisers largely benefitted “employees whose cars are washed.”
A System Ripe for Abuse
In Springfield, the EBF spent about $30,000 a year on Christmas parties for employees. There were typically 300 people in attendance, both employees and their guests. In 2016, the hotel rental cost alone was $19,581. Other expenses were for food, beverages, a DJ and prizes. In 2016, the EBF gave out a total of some $8,000 in prizes. A check was written to the EBF chair for $6,100 in cash prizes, almost half of which was given to the Employee of the Year and nominees. Such a system, the investigation concluded, was “ripe for fraud or abuse.”
At Sheridan prison, the EBF chair told an investigator that their largest expenditures were for Christmas parties. In 2015, the alcohol tab at the Christmas party came to about $1,500, paid for with EBF monies. Sheridan was successful at holding several raffles, one of which raised $30,000, split evenly between the winner and EBF. These raffles were deemed illegal and ordered to be halted.
While the EBFs are supposed to benefit all prison employees, they were sometimes used for individual guards’ entertainment. For example, the EBFs were used to pay for teams of four to play in golf tournaments. 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 contacted all the businesses that had contributed the previous year. 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. Indeed, law enforcement workers are an unusually high number of residents of Perry County. The investigation found that 22 businesses and government agencies contributed to the 2017 run.
Prison staff were permitted a significant amount of staff time to organize these benefits. For the 5K race at Menard prison, it was found that the EBF chair sent almost 600 emails related to fundraising in one month.
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. IDOC Chief of Staff Bowen, who oversaw the funds, received a 30-day suspension which he appealed and had 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.”
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