Guards at Pontiac state prison harassed gay co-worker, state investigation finds

And high-ranking prison officials were found not only to have failed to address the problems but to have perpetuated them.

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Pontiac Correctional Center.

Pontiac Correctional Center.

Robert Wildeboer / WBEZ

In the fall of 2018, a guard at the state’s Pontiac Correctional Center told his supervisor an incarcerated man had masturbated at the front of his cell while staring at him.

That supervisor, Lt. Adrian Corley, took the opportunity to play a prank on his subordinate. Corley gave the recently hired guard a fake form to fill out and told him to draw a picture of what happened.

The employee, who is identified in a state investigation only as “Employee 1” to protect his identity, was confused about how he should render the explicit incident and received help with the drawing from a coworker but still signed his name to the fake form.

It quickly circulated around the Illinois state prison as a joke, and Employee 1, who is gay, said he was subjected to ongoing harrasment, including homophobic slurs and graffiti and one incident in which a coworker rubbed his genitals against him.

Multiple high-ranking prison officers, including two assistant wardens, were aware of the fake form but failed to intervene. Instead, some of the supervisors shared the drawing with other coworkers and exchanged emails about how they thought it was funny.

That’s according to a new report from the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General that found layers of oversight all failed to address the harassed guard’s complaint. 

“Prisons are already difficult and dangerous working environments, where staff face challenges posed by inmate misconduct on a daily basis,” the inspector general’s office’s report said. “It is entirely unacceptable that staff at Pontiac Correctional Center also suffer mistreatment at work by their own coworkers and supervisors due to the unprofessional working environment that flourishes there.” 

Employee 1 told inspectors he dreaded coming to work and eventually left the department. 

In a written statement, IDOC officials said the behavior was unacceptable and that they took “the most severe disciplinary action possible against involved employees.” 

Corley was fired over the incident along with the two assistant wardens who shared the prank form.

Three other high-ranking officers were fired but then reinstated after filing grievances according to the inspector general’s office.

Warden Teri Kennedy, accused of turning a blind eye to the problem, retired before disciplinary action was taken.

The Department of Corrections has struggled to terminate staff members even when it has clear documentation of serious misconduct, including criminal activity, WBEZ previously reported. 

The new report is another example of a culture of abuse that has gone unchecked in Illinois prisons, especially at Pontiac Correctional Center. 

Two Black mental health workers from Pontiac Correctional Center told WBEZ’s “Motive” podcast of suffering racist and sexist abuse from fellow staff members. In one incident, Jimia Stokes and Demaria Bates said a fellow staff member told them it was a good thing he had forgotten his gun when he saw them at a traffic stop. They took his comments to be a joke about how he mistook them for criminals because of their race. After reporting continuing abuse, both women said they feared for their safety and left their jobs. 

One of the high-ranking Department of Corrections officers named in the inspector general’s report — Susan Prentice, a former major — supervised a cellhouse where staffers circulated the fake form and harassed Employee 1. Prentice was on vacation at the time the prank form was created but, according to emails, forwarded a copy to fellow staff members, describing her amusement. 

According to documents obtained by WBEZ Prentice also had come under scrutiny for writing emails about how she lied on reports to get an incarcerated man in more trouble.

In another incident, a former guard wrote her about a time she had instructed him to bite her so it would look like she’d been attacked by an incarcerated man, which could justify beating him. Prentice and the other officer told investigators they did not carry out their plan. 

In another email, Prentice wrote Corley about a mental health worker she called “horrible” because she thought the worker was helping get an incarcerated patient access to a radio. Prentice wrote Corley: “Get him a radio then smash it in front of him.” 

A state investigation into Prentice’s emails concluded she had committed misconduct by lying on a report, but she retained her job after that.

After 25 years working for the Department of Corrections, she agreed to retire after the inspector general’s investigation. 

That office’s report said that, at Pontiac, jokes are routinely carried out at the expense of fellow staff members and that the highest levels of management condone or even join in.

“Such unprofessional, irresponsible behavior and attitudes have no place in the modern workplace,” the report said. “It is clear that the only way this culture will change for the better is if serious consequences are imposed.”

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