State police question prison workers about leaks

August 7, 2012 - 9:37 PM

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois State Police investigators attempted to question at least six workers at Tamms Correctional Center on Tuesday in a criminal investigation of leaks of secret information.

One of those interviewed told The Associated Press the encounter lasted a few minutes and said "they were trying to intimidate me." Gov. Pat Quinn, who wants to close the high-security Tamms lockups, said through a spokeswoman he did not order the investigation. The union representing prison employees called on the Democrat to "renounce these heavy-handed tactics."

State police spokeswoman Monique Bond confirmed Tuesday that "there is an ongoing investigation into criminal activity." She would not say more.

Two Tamms employees, speaking only on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, described the scene. One said most of those called in — correctional counselors, mental health professionals and the prison's health care administrator — refused to be questioned without a lawyer.

The employees said three investigators were from the state police and one from the Corrections Department.

The prison agency has been concerned about confidential information leaking to the news media about the supermax Tamms. It's a high-security lockup for inmates who were violent in general prisons and a place to isolate gang leaders and cut off communication with subordinates. It's closing because Quinn believes it's underused and too expensive.

A Corrections spokeswoman would not comment on the police visit to Tamms, on the southern tip of Illinois.

A correctional counselor called before the investigators said a police special agent displayed her badge and explained it was a criminal investigation involving a leak of private health information. The employee, who described the scene as "very dramatic," said the special agent briefly turned over a stack of papers but what it contained wasn't visible.

The counselor, who was also questioned several weeks ago by the Corrections investigator after a news report based on internal data, submitted a written complaint Tuesday.

"I felt like I was being harassed, that they were trying to intimidate me," said the counselor, whose job includes preparing Tamms inmates for transfer. "It creates a hostile work environment and a distraction, and I don't feel like I can do my job."

Anders Lindall of the employees' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said it was disturbing that Quinn would call in his state police "to prevent rank-and-file employees from exercising their legal rights and stifle criticism of his dangerous rush to close state prisons."

"Unlike Pat Quinn, we believe citizens should know what their government is doing behind the prison walls," Lindall said. "He should renounce these heavy-handed tactics and put a stop to them at once."

The AP reported last month that Corrections ordered a "mass shakedown" for contraband on prison employees as they left work, a nearly unprecedented step. That followed closely on the heels of a forum in which prison employees publicly voiced their worries about Quinn's prison-closure plan, which also includes the Dwight women's facility.

It also came shortly after Lee Enterprises Newspapers in Illinois reported, based on a confidential memo, that nine displaced Tamms inmates would be put in prisons out of state. Corrections Chief Executive Jerry Buscher responded with a letter to Lee warning that publishing the information would be viewed "as attempting to promote disorder within the prison system."

The counselor called in by investigators Tuesday said records about out-of-state placements wouldn't have had health information.

Buscher signed a similar letter to the AP when a reporter for the news agency asked Corrections about emails showing prospective placement of other Tamms inmates — some of whom were identified as having mental health problems.

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Contact John O'Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor