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On Facebook, Illinois prison guards, accused of abuses by transgender inmates, mocked LGBTQ community

The officers who posted the offensive and explicit memes and other posts all identified themselves as Department of Corrections employees.

Strawberry Hampton, 28, a transgender woman from the South Side who is suing the Illinois Department of Corrections for discrimination, sexual abuse and assault by prisoners and corrections officers at male prisons.
Strawberry Hampton, 28, a transgender woman from the South Side who is suing the Illinois Department of Corrections for discrimination, sexual abuse and assault by prisoners and corrections officers at male prisons.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Two Illinois Department of Corrections officers accused in a lawsuit of civil rights violations against a transgender woman have publicly shared memes or other posts mocking members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

A third officer posted a Facebook meme disapproving of homosexuality.

The correctional officers all identified themselves on Facebook as Illinois Department of Corrections employees.

Last month, correctional officer John Mercks posted a looped video clip on Facebook with a crying-laughing emoji and wrote, “What it’s like working at a prison.” The video shows actor Bruce Willis smiling in response to a person dressed in a short skirt, followed by Willis’ smile vanishing as it becomes clear the person wearing the skirt doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles.

Mercks has shared a handful of explicit memes and other posts mocking the transgender community, women and claims of sexual assault or physical violence.

The correctional officer shared another meme last month that showed a professional wrestler body slamming another wrestler, with accompanying text that read: “I assisted the inmate to the floor! Corrections 101.”

“The coincidence is unreal right now,” Mercks wrote alongside the meme, with a crying-laughing emoji.

Mercks is named in a lawsuit filed by Strawberry Hampton, a transgender woman, who said that when she was imprisoned at the downstate Pinckneyville Correctional Center in 2017, Mercks and other corrections officers beat and sexually assaulted her.

Hampton was incarcerated under her previous name, Deon Hampton. She said she was forcibly removed from her cell, stripped of her clothes, repeatedly punched and kicked and called a homophobic slur.

Three months before the incident described in the lawsuit, Mercks posted an explicit meme on Facebook that displayed an image of Caitlyn Jenner along with the term “tranny.”

Mercks also posted anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and racist memes. One shows a plow driving through a pile of dead bodies, with a joke about Jews. Another shows several hanged men and calls them “Islamic wind chimes.” A third shows singer Celine Dion holding an infant in her hands. “If you hold a black baby to your ear, you can hear the police sirens,” the meme reads. Above the post, Mercks wrote “Dear gawd” and added a crying-laughing emoji.

Correctional Sgt. Joseph Dudek, also named in Hampton’s lawsuit, is identified as one of the officers Hampton said beat and assaulted her. Dudek has posted memes on Facebook that make fun of online support for Muslim refugees and people who identify as transgender and that link a man’s lack of interest in guns with his sexuality.

A third correctional employee, Sgt. Gary Hicks, shared a meme in July that deemed

homosexuality a sin, and reposted Islamophobic memes. He also commented on his interest in being part of the fight if a civil war or government overthrow unfolds in the United States and shared an image of soldiers standing in front of a military tank draped in the confederate flag.

The Illinois Attorney General’s office, which represents the two officers named in the lawsuit, declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending.

Agency spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said the Department of Corrections “takes these matters very seriously and has zero tolerance for bigotry of any kind. The employees are on leave pending active IDOC investigations into these posts. Based on the result of these investigations, the department will take all appropriate disciplinary action.”

An earlier version of this story posted online Wednesday erroneously reported that all three prison guards have been named in civil rights lawsuits filed by transgender prisoners. Only two of the three guards are named in the pending lawsuits; Gary Hicks is not. Also, the story reported an inmate’s allegations that she was raped by her cellmate after complaining to a guard she felt unsafe in her cell. That allegation didn’t involve Hicks.

Emily Hoerner reports for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization that conducts in-depth research to expose institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.