The Illinois Department of Corrections is in damage-control mode after three prison officers have been accused of denigrating LGBTQ+ people and boasting of violently handling inmates.
Officer John Mercks is among those named in a lawsuit. He shared numerous Facebook memes mocking queer people. One featured a laughing emoji and the caption “what it’s like working at a prison” alongside a clip of someone looking in dismay at a gender-nonconforming person in a dress. Another was an image of one wrestler tackling someone to the ground, captioned, “I assisted the inmate to the floor! Corrections 101.” Mercks added a laughing emoji to that post as well.
The officer also shared an image of Caitlyn Jenner accompanied by a transphobic slur, as well as jokes about dead Jews, dead Muslims, and racist pictures.
A second officer, Correctional Sgt. Joseph Dudek, shared images mocking Muslim refugees and trans people.
In addition, Sgt. Gary Hicks is accused of posting Facebook memes labelling homosexuality a sin and denigrating Islam. Hicks also allegedly posted racist flag imagery and wrote about his interest in participating in a civil war.
A former inmate named Strawberry Hampton filed suit against Mercks and Dudek, part of an ongoing legal challenge dating back to 2017. The suit alleges that they and other guards beat and raped her while she was in the Pinckneyville Correctional Center in 2017. The Chicago Sun-Times has repeatedly deadnamed Hampton in news coverage of the suit.
Hampton was sentenced to 10 years for residential burglary, an offense that normally carries a term of three to seven years, but says she is innocent. She was initially housed with men and was forced to endure a prolonged battle with the prison system to be transferred to a women’s facility. Guards referred to her as “it,” she said, alleging that staff stripped her and forced her to perform sex acts.
The former inmate also reported that male prisoners and staff would become violent when she refused sexual advances and suspects her release date was pushed back as punishment for reporting abuse.
Vanessa del Valle of the MacArthur Justice Center is representing Hampton. According to del Valle, the Illinois Department of Corrections is not doing enough to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), particularly when it comes to transgender inmates. Passed in 2003, the legislation requires annual study of sexual assault and the implementation of guidelines to prevent acts of violence like those described by Hampton.
The Trump administration, however, has rolled back some protections for trans inmates established under President Obama.
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections responded to the lawsuit, telling the Sun-Times that “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,” the department added.