There is a guard at Pontiac prison who some staff praise for being tough and having their backs. But other staff and people in prison say she is known for abuse. WBEZ obtained recordings of an investigation into this infamous guard and a trove of emails that reveal the conversations between her and other staff, when they believe no-one is looking.
In this episode of the “Motive” podcast, we explore the relationships behind the prison wall: familial, romantic, and platonic. And we see how inside this close-knit community, staff discuss plans to frame and punish men in prison.
Exposing violence and cover ups, Season 4 of Motive investigates the hidden world of big prisons in small towns. Places where everyone knows each other and difficult truths get buried.
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About the host
Shannon Heffernan is the host and a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ in Chicago. She has spent much of her career reporting on prisons. The work for this podcast began nearly four years ago when she got a call that an inmate at a prison had died under suspicious circumstances.
Motive is a production of WBEZ Chicago. Jesse Dukes (@CuriousDukes) is the producer. Marie Mendoza (@marieannmendoza) is our associate producer. Joe DeCeault mixed this episode. Nicole Pasulka is our fact checker. Our editor is Rob Wildeboer. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Tracy Brown is our Chief Content Officer. We had additional production and reporting help from Arno Pedram and Candace Mittel Kahn. Original music by Cue Shop.
MONICA STRANDBERG: Today’s date is February 28th. I am Special Agent Monica Strandberg with the Illinois State Police Division of Internal Investigation, with me in the room are…
RICK NOBLE: Investigator Rick Noble, the Illinois Department of Corrections.
STRANDBERG: And you are ma’am?
SUSAN PRENTICE: Susan Prentice, Major at Pontiac Correctional Center.
SHANNON HEFFERNAN, HOST: In the winter of 2019, Susan Prentice sat down with two investigators. The man is from the Department of Corrections, the woman is from the state police. For the most part, she takes the lead.
STRANDBERG: You don’t have to talk to me. If you don’t like the line of questioning, I’m going down you can say ‘I’m done Monica,’ and you can walk out.
STRANDBERG: Are you good with that?
PRENTICE: I’m good with that.
STRANDBERG: Ok so with that said, will you go ahead sign right here that you understand that?
HEFFERNAN: I’d been trying to get a guard from Pontiac to record an interview with me. But, it’s a pretty tightlipped community. But now, here was a recorded conversation with one, and not just anyone — Susan Prentice.
HEFFERNAN: She’s a Major, that’s a pretty high-ranking correctional officer, someone supervising other staff. And her name, it comes up a lot. Jimia Stokes, the mental health worker from last episode, first mentioned her to me.
JIMIA STOKES: I would describe Susan Prentice as the devil, and I say that with all sincerity.
HEFFERNAN: And many of the men incarcerated at Pontiac said similar things.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh yes, they call her the red devil.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They call her princess. They call her the red dragon.
UNIDENTIFIED: Her reputation was, if you didn’t comply with whatever she told you to do, she would get officers,and she would come to your cell and they would jump on you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She don’t like you, you out. So if this who up top, why you think everybody else a*******? Like, she don’t care about nothing.
HEFFERNAN: And Monica Strandberg, the state police officer has heard about her from guards, who have a different perspective.
STRANDBERG: And everybody I talked to, ‘Major Prentice is a rock star. We want to do things for her because you know what? Major Prentice has my back and if somebody has my back I’m going to f****** work my a** for you.’
HEFFERNAN: So this investigative interview, it’s with a legend at Pontiac. An institution inside the institution. And once we learned there were tapes of Prentice, and also people who worked with her, we spent years arguing back and forth, with help of lawyers, to get our hands on them. As you can hear, the first part of the Prentice interview doesn’t sound very aggressive. Strandberg praises Prentice, and tells her just like you, I was a guard at an Illinois prison.
STRANDBERG: Back in the 90s. Yeah, before I became a police officer, worked there for many years. We’ve done a lot of the same things.
I’m not going to speak for you, but I know what I’ve had to do to gain respect from the fellas. And we all back each other, up 100 percent. I am very pro-police. Pro CO I’m not a, what do they call it?
STRANDBERG: Hug a thug?
PRENTICE: Hug a thug.
STRANDBERG: I guess, or….
HEFFERNAN: It’s hard to tell, but it seems like Prentice may not know yet if Strandberg is there to investigate a prisoner, to dig up dirt on one of her co-workers, or there to investigate her.
STRANDBERG: Obviously you have gained a boatload of respect. And um you know, what goes on. And that’s what we want to talk about today, about things that are going on here.
HEFFERNAN: Things that are going on here. I’d read reports written by Prentice … and by people who worked under her.. So I knew how they reported “things that were going on” in Pontiac. I knew the official stories, crafted on paper, of attacks on guards and efforts at discipline.
HEFFERNAN: What I didn’t know, but was about to get a peek into, was what guards told each other about what was happening inside, in emails, or after roll call — when they thought no one was looking. From WBEZ Chicago, I’m Shannon Heffernan, and this Is Motive Season 4. Episode 3: The Major and her Crew.
STRANDBERG: Have you always been at Pontiac?
STRANDBERG: Really? Damn, God bless you. How many years is that 22, 23?
PRENTICE: Yeah, 23.
PRENTICE: Yeah, it’s a lot.
STRANDBERG: Yeah it is.
HEFFERNAN: Major Prentice tells the investigators she goes by her middle name Kim. She’s 52 years old. I’ve seen photos of her, she’s petite, and from what I’ve seen, always looks put together. Another thing about her, she gets sued a lot.
HEFFERNAN: Federal court records show she’s been named in more than 100 cases. She’s not always the focus of the lawsuit, sometimes just the supervisor, and prisoners do sue a bunch. But, even considering that, that number is pretty big.
HEFFERNAN: None of those cases ended with a verdict against Prentice, but the state did pay to settle several. They run the gamut. Some are petty cases, but there’s also cases that claim Prentice destroyed a prisoner’s property. Another about her and other guards keeping a man from getting medical care, and a case about officers, who worked under Prentice, getting a prisoner to beat another prisoner up. That one settled for 50,000 dollars.
STRANDBERG: Police culture is crazy, fireman culture is crazy, we all have our little cliques.
HEFFERNAN: The community at Pontiac from what I’ve heard, from other staff and people in prison, is tight. As Strandberg talks to Prentice, she appears to be singalging, In all these ways — I’m an insider, in law enforcement, a former CO. You can talk to me like I’m one of your own.
STRANDBERG: Honestly, I really don’t hang out with anybody but police officers. But people that, we have the same mindset and we think the same way, you know, after work went out, we had beer and we all drank and until it was time not to drink and go home. When it comes to the camaraderie, we get it, you know, everybody talks amongst each other. Do they or don’t they, COs do that? Yeah.
PRENTICE: Well, I’m friends with a few of them, but as far as their personal lives, I mean, they don’t, they don’t bring anything like that to me.
HEFFERNAN: Prentice must sense this isn’t a thing she shouldn’t say — that she’s close with other staff, part of a tight-knit community. Because this, what she tells Strandberg, seems to be a lie, or at least not the full picture. Prentice’s husband is a CO, a guard at a nearby prison. Her son is a guard, too, at Pontiac.
HEFFERNAN: And I used open records laws to get some of Prentice’s emails — they are full of affection with lots of fellow staff, not just family. There’s ‘I love you’s’ and ‘I love you mores.’ Plans to go out drinking, to crash at each other’s house, chit chat about holidays, or fights with family
HEFFERNAN: In one email to a former co-worker she writes, quote ‘I think DOC is just like the military as far as friends go. High stress job so everyone kinda sticks together more. I always said that I never have had friends like I did in the army until I started here.’
HEFFERNAN: Pontiac, you’ve already probably gotten the sense, is a rough place to work. AFSCME, the union that represents most guards, had organized a campaign about assaults against staff. And the court monitor, the man you heard from last episode about mistreatment of prisoners with mental illness, he also said the guards were traumatized by working in this place. Strandberg asks Prentice about all the wild stuff that happens.
STRANDBERG: Being here for all these years, how many times have people thrown stuff on you?
PRENTICE: A whole lot.
STRANDBERG: A lot. You ever been beat up, shanked, stabbed or whatever you want to call it? No? What type of substances have people thrown on you?
PRENTICE: Feces, urine, food. And we just go over to the health care unit and wash your hands or wash your face and get back over to work.
STRANDBERG: You just get back to work. Yeah.
PRENTICE: Yeah, that’s just kind of what we do.
HEFFERNAN: At this point, Strandberg gives Prentice a piece of paper. I imagine her sliding it across the table.
STRANDBERG: Just tell me if you remember this incident.
PRENTICE: Yeah, that’s my handwriting.
PRENTICE: So it doesn’t.
STRANDBERG: What does this mean?
PRENTICE: That just means that he’s SMI.
HEFFERNAN: This report that Prentice wrote.. Is about a prisoner named Frederick Walker. He’s officially designated SMI— Seriously Mentally Ill. And Prentice reports that he threw something on her that smelled and looked like urine.
STRANDBERG: Do you remember this incident specifically?
PRENTICE: Um, I remember. No, not specific, not a lot of specifics on it.
STRANDBERG: It was brought to our attention that you had said to your husband regarding a use of force, ‘I think it was water, but urine carries a longer seg time.’
PRENTICE: To my husband?
STRANDBERG: I have 427 e-mails right here. Andrew Prentice is your husband, right here, the outlined one.
PRENTICE: Yeah, he’s my husband.
STRANDBERG: So there’s 427 e-mails in here regarding a whole lot of stuff that are shady. Involving each one of them is from you or some from somebody else in the institution to you. Why the hell would you say that?
PRENTICE: I don’t know. He probably didn’t get any seg time.
STRANDBERG: No, he got time.
PRENTICE: He’s SMI, he couldn’t have gotten much time.
HEFFERNAN: It’s hard to hear, but what she said is he probably didn’t get any seg time. As in time in segregation. She says this because Frederick Walker is designated seriously mentally ill. But SMI people do get seg time.
HEFFERNAN: In fact, Walker got 45 days. So, for 45 days, up to 23 hours a day, he was in a cell, without much stimulation at all. Some context: the UN says solitary confinement can be torture, because it’s so psycholgicaly grueling. Hard for anyone — let alone someone with serious mental health issues.
HEFFERNAN: If it wasn’t clear to Prentice before, she knows it now. The investigators aren’t there to talk about something one of the incarcerated men did, and they aren’t there to just dig up dirt on one of Prentice’s co workers. They are there for her. They’ve got 427 emails.
HEFFERNAN: For this first incident, Prentice offers a defense. Even if she had lied on her reports, said Walker threw urine when she thought it was water, It didn’t matter. Throwing a liquid at a guard, urine or water, you broke the same rule. You’re going to get the same seg time.
HEFFERNAN: But, you have to keep in mind there’s discretion in what people actually end up getting punished for, and urine, well.. sounds grosser, right? More likely something administrators are going to pursue for punishment?
HEFFERNAN: And pursue for punishment they did. In addition to seg time, Walker’s case got forwarded from prison officials to the local state’s attorney, to be considered for criminal prosecution of Walker. These reports, the one Prentice wrote, they’re powerful.
HEFFERNAN: And if it wasn’t for the fact that she bragged about her lie in writing, there would be no way to prove that Walker hadn’t thrown urine on her. People usually believe guards, after all.
STRANDBERG: I just want to just understand why, what you were thinking and why you said it that’s all.
PRENTICE: I don’t know.
STRANBERG: Obviously, you were angry with the inmate. I get that if somebody throws something on you. I mean, I wouldn’t be freaking happy about it one bit.
STRANDBERG: That’s human nature. I mean, just try to get in your mind and I’m wondering what you were thinking.
PRENTICE: I don’t know.
HEFFERNAN: I’m going to step away from this interrogation to zoom in on the Walker incident for a moment. Because there are some things that I pieced together by matching those emails Strandberg had to other documents. Police didn’t ask Prentice about it. But, I think it’s important context, because it illustrates something I’ve heard over and over again from people locked inside, something that I think this interrogation is trying to get at — that guards allegedly have an unofficial way of punishing the men behind bars, and that there’s ways it’s hidden.
HEFFERNAN: So, Frederick Walker. He fully admits to throwing water on Prentice. He says she had just pepper sprayed him and he was trying to stop her from doing it again. He said he thought it pissed her off. And a few days after the water incident, Walker said two guards came to his cell and beat him. He said they never said it explicitly, but he believed it was retaliation for throwing water at Prentice. I reached Walker in prison. Prison phones are the worst, the audio is hard to understand, But he said they pulled his hands through the slot where food trays are delivered…
FREDERICK WALKER: He took the door and he slammed it twice real hard, bam bam. On both my arms, so I had a whole bunch of injuries on my forearms.
HEFFERNAN: He said after they slammed the door on his arms, they came into his cell. He said he moved to the back, but they followed. Then one of them picked him up.
WALKER: He picked me up and slammed me down. So I was scared he was going to hurt me when I was on the floor, and I was trying to dodge and my back was to him. By the time I made it to my feet. He went to hitting me on the left out of my back and the back of my ribs real hard.
HEFFERNAN: Walker was treated for a rib fracture, according to his medical records. In emails, Prentice wrote to a group of guards that Walker is reporting an injury caused by staff. She writes, quote ‘I did view the camera and you can see that an incident occurred but no details.’ Another staff member writes back, quote ‘What camera did you watch? Both cameras on that end are pointing at the wall.’ Which, obviously, not super useful. With no clear video, and nothing but the word of Walker vs. Staff, prison administrators decided accusations from Walker were unsubstantiated. The guards were absolved.
HEFFERNAN: So, like I said, that beating Walker alleges, it never came up in this interrogation. I don’t know if investigators didn’t piece it together, or it’s not their focus. But either way, Prentice could still be in deep water here for lying on a report, saying that Walker threw urine, even though she believed it was water. Investigators told her lying on a report can be official misconduct, A felony.
HEFFERNAN: Prentice doesn’t seem that worried, like it’s that big of a deal. But what Prentice doesn’t know, at least at this point in the interview, is that at the exact same time investigators are talking to her, an hour drive away, investigators are also talking to a former correctional officer who worked underneath her.
TIMOTHY PRICE: I’m Trooper Timothy Price, Illinois State Police Division of Internal Investigation and in the room I have with me…
NICK MOODY: Investigator Nick Moody, Illinois Department of Corrections.
PRICE: If you’ll introduce yourself, please.
ANDREW EDWARDS: Andrew Edwards, former officer at Pontiac.
HEFFERNAN: Edwards no longer works at Pontiac, but still works for the state in the Department of Human Services as a caseworker. The interview is happening at his new office. The interview starts a lot like Prentice’s, pretty buddy-buddy. The police officer, Price, tells Edwards he too used to be a CO at Pontiac.
PRICE: You know it’s so crazy, it’s like when I was at Pontiac man, I would have done anything to protect somebody else. If an inmate, of course, kind of assed up and then everybody’s going down. Punch, kick. Whatever. I’ll be the first to admit it, I was like, ‘All right, yeah, inmate did an assault or whatever. Yeah, we’ll take care of it. we’ll write it out, protect each other.’
HEFFERNAN: After a bit of friendly back and forth, how bad the people locked up at Pontiac are, how hard you work to cover your fellow employees’ asses, Edwards brings up his old boss, Prentice.
EDWARDS: I,I worked with Major Prentice, you know, she was my supervisor for the longest time, and she’s kind of a hard a**, you know, but she’s a female. She’s a female running the, you know, the worst cell house in the state of Illinois, you know, so.
PRICE: Right, right.
EDWARDS: She had she’s got her tough ways, but she was I mean, I would I would die for her. I mean, she was awesome, you know I love her to death.
PRICE: So what’s it about Sue Prentice, that you are so close with her?
EDWARDS: Because she always had my back.
PRICE: She has everybody’s back.
EDWARDS: She always has her officers’ backs.
PRICE: Yeah, yeah.
PRICE: I love Sue because like she was all about, she’s pro officer, all about the COs. Sue was like the one person that never back down from anything.
EDWARDS: No, ever
PRICE: Ever. And you could be like, Look like this inmates, f***-mouthing me, he won’t give his tray. She’s like, All right, let’s go take care of it, loved it. It was great.
PRICE: What are some of the interactions that occurred whenever Sue was like a supervisor. Anything that comes to mind over that way that we would need to maybe look into a little bit?
EDWARDS: Um, no, I mean, I always thought she did s*** the right way.
EDWARDS: But as far as her ever like having me do anything bogus, I mean that never that never happened. like I said, I’m not going to, no bad things are going to be said about her by me. So.
PRICE: Yeah, yeah.
HEFFERNAN: Just for the record, state officials said Price, this police officer, did work for the Department of Corrections, just like Strandberg. But I wasn’t ever able to confirm if it’s true that he worked with Prentice, or that he was involved in the kinds of incidents he says he was. All that could be a lie, an investigation tactic to draw Edwards out. But either way, as soon as Edwards brings up Susan Prentice, the interview zeros in on that. Price prodding Edwards to say a little more… and a little more.
PRICE: Anything that Sue ever did that was kind of on the bogus side or questionable, maybe that you can think of?
EDWARDS: Um. no.
PRICE: Anything that comes to mind? You kind of hesitated there a little bit.
EDWARDS: Yeah, just trying to think, I mean, there’s just so much s*** that happens at Pontiac, you know, throughout a year, throughout the day, you know, I mean, everybody, everybody is always thrown into some kind of bogus s***, you know?
PRICE: Right, right. What about her bogus s***? Anything that she’s said, or that she’s done or she’s had you do. Or you report?
EDWARDS: I mean, maybe, you know, like stripping a guy of his property, like taking everything, you know, leaving him in there with boxers on. You know, I guess I never really thought that was totally right. But, you know, sometimes we got to, she’d have you go in there, just take his property because he because he assaulted somebody the week before.
HEFFERNAN: These punishments, the stripping out and leaving men in their cells without clothes, or any of their property, Edwards doesn’t seem too phased by admitting to this. And it’s also not what Officer Price is focused on. He blows right by it. What he’s interested in are those 427 emails. He’s got copies too, and he starts reading them.
PRICE: OK, so it looks like at 4:44 p.m. You had sent Sue Prentice an email.
PRICE: So you said ‘You’re definitely right about prison friends. You go through a lot of s*** with those people, so bonds you a little more, especially when your boss wants you to go into a cell and then bite her. So it’s justified why we kick the crap out of him. LOL.’
PRICE: So, the first thing the most important thing right now is the comment, ‘especially when your boss wants you to kick and wants you to go into a cell and bite her. So justified why we kick the crap out of him.’ What are you talking about?
EDWARDS: Yeah, I mean, she came up to me one day, it was with Inmate Holloway. He had just assaulted, I don’t know, an officer. He assaulted the day before and she was steaming in the morning at roll call, and he had a history of biting, because he bit me before. She said we were going to go into his cell and do whatever. We, you know, whoop up on him and she was going to have me bite her to make it look like he did it. And so we were justified.
HEFFERNAN: Justified in beating him up, because Edwards said Prentice told him they should kick Walker’s teeth in.
EDWARDS: And but we never we never did that. I mean, we never went in the never went in his cell or anything, it got shut down.
PRICE: Was she laughing about it? Was she serious?
EDWARDS: I mean, she seemed fairly serious, I guess
PRICE: What did you say to her? Ok?
EDWARDS: I just I mean, I was kind of kind of hesitant at first, you know, I said, you know, if that’s what you want to do, I guess that’s what we’ll do.
HEFFERNAN: So, just to be real clear here. Even though he says it never ended up happening, Edwards just admitted that he agreed to bite Prentice so they’d have a justification to assault a prisoner. And he said he was following his boss’s lead. It was Prentice’s idea.
HEFFERNAN: Back in the Prentice interview, she’s learning that her former subordinate Edwards is also talking to the police. Strandberg tells her Edwards is cooperating, talking with an investigator at this very moment, about that biting email. Strandberg implies she’s getting updates about what Edwards is saying.
STRANBERG: That you wanted to go into Holloway’s cell and batter him, and then she and Edwards would go into the cell, and he would bite you, Edwards would bite you until she told him to stop, and that would be the reason why they battered Holloway.
PRENTICE: Well, there’s always a lot of talk. We always talk about stupid stuff, but it doesn’t happen.
PRENTICE: I’m sure they told you it didn’t happen.
STRANDBERG: And you wanted to kick his teeth in. Holloway’s teeth in, and Edwards bit you.
PRENTICE: Well If Edwards bit me, I probably would have went to the health care unit, correct?
STRANDBERG: Mhmm. I’m asking you.
PRENTICE: I’m I’m no, I’m asking you. I probably would go to the health care unit and file an injury report. Correct? That’s the protocol.
HEFFERNAN: Strandberg starts to amp up her game, go after Prentice even harder. She prods Prentice about how close she and Edwards are; she keeps coming back to this in the interrogation, the relationships— familial, platonic, romantic. I think she’s trying to get at how that tangled and messy web is part of the prison operations.
STRANDBERG: But my point is is somebody that likes you, that much would do something for you to try to to try to batter an inmate in some way.
PRENTICE: He never battered anyone. Didn’t happen.
STRANDBERG: It did not happen?
PRENTICE: No. It did not happen.
HEFFERNAN: Prentice is tough. She’s not giving Strandberg much to work with. But, the pressure building on Edwards, well, it’s working a little better. That’s after the Break.
HEFFERNAN: So a recap of what has happened so far: by this point in the police interview, Prentice has been forced to all but admit that she wrote a false report on a prisoner. But she hasn’t given them much else. As for Edwards, her former co-worker, at first he told police: Prentice is tough, but great. Nothing bad ever happened. Squeaky clean.
HEFFERNAN: But then, he walked that back. Admitted that she’d asked him to bite her so they could frame a prisoner to justify beating him up. He says they never actually did it. But both these stories, the one about the biting email and the urine email, they both show ways staff can manipulate the story, and the power that has. Guards can cover their tracks if they want to hurt someone And they can get people in prison in trouble, time in seg, or maybe even a longer sentence, Serious stuff.
PRICE: All right. So remember when I told you, I asked you about bogus staff members and the things you heard about and you told me nothing. Right? So you lied to me a little bit.
EDWARDS: Yeah a little bit.
PRICE: Yeah. So let’s not lie about anything again because again, we always know what’s going on.
EDWARDS: I know. I mean, I should’ve assumed you knew.
HEFFERNAN: Price basically tells Edwards. You got a cushy state job here at Human Services. But remember, you just started here. You’re on probation, and I know your supervisor. I don’t think he’d be happy to learn about these emails.
PRICE: So make sure you’re saving face OK because I don’t want to keep sitting here giving you a ton of opportunities to talk when you know something, because your best interest that you can do is to talk and you can go back out there and you can do your work.
PRICE: I’m just saying there were things that occurred that we need to know about because I do remember back when she was a lieutenant and same thing, we’d be like sue this is what we got going on and she would be like… Go pull his a** out of the cell. We’ll put him out there. Well, strip him out for no reason. Things like that.
EDWARDS: That’s kind of what I said earlier, I mean, She probably brought a lot of that on herself. I mean, I think she kind of, you know, gets off on that kind of stuff. You know, she loves … She loves riling them up and, you know, seeing them get whooped up on it. I mean, she definitely does brings a lot of it, a lot of it on her.
EDWARDS: I mean, I very rarely saw her ever, like, put her hands on somebody, mainly just because she she can’t. I mean, she can. But you know, she’s female.
PRICE: but what Sue does do is she assembles her team and they go down there and she says get them, do what you got to do. And I’ve been there, done that with her before.
EDWARDS: Yeah, she does that.
PRICE: Exactly what she does.
EDWARDS: I mean, I can’t think of a certain situation where she actually said like, you know, go in there and I mean, she would she would always tell us, you know, just go, you do what you got to do. You know, I’ll cover your ass. You know, she said that all the time and she always would.
EDWARDS: She would set up a team and she’d say, OK, today it’s you, you, you, you know, if something goes down, I don’t want anybody else in the cell house coming because things get, one report says this thing. One report says something different said she’d always have a little three man team. She called it, you know, that way, all the incident reports matched, you know… you know, because that was kind of the point of it. So the incident reports wouldn’t to get screwed up.
HEFFERNAN: Again— we put these allegations to Prentice, she refused to do an interview or provide a comment. Edwards tells the police officer.. .. that this three man team as Prentice called it… .this crew that she flagged to respond to situations… It usually included a guard Prentice was, according to Edwards, having an affair with…. That seems backed up by emails.. in which that guard sends Prentice sexual messages and she discusses meeting up with him.
HEFFERNAN: I feel a little gross talking about someone’s personal life. But I’m bringing it up because it’s an apparent affair with a subordinate, and the closeness of relationships at Pontiac, it’s something both staff and people in prison told me allows the abuse and cover ups to happen. Edwards tells Price, this guard was, quote ‘always rough around the edges.’
EDWARDS: I don’t know, many incidents with them. But I know he was a lot of times he was Prentice’s like, absolutely go to.
PRICE: Well, we know why.
EDWARDS: Well, yeah, and not just that, but because he is a, you know, strong motherf***** and you know, he’ll fight with anybody.
HEFFERNAN: As for Edwards himself, times he acted as part of Prentice’s crew, there’s really only one story he tells that gets into the specifics. It’s about a guy named Marlon Billops.
HEFFERNAN: A little bit about Billops— he was on the mental health caseload. Staff had accused him of assault before, and he had a previous run-ins with Prentice and people she was close to. In fact, a 2016 incident with him — It’s the only time I found where Prentice got seriously disciplined up to this point. I won’t get into all the details, but in lawsuits Billops basically said guards beat him up after he argued with Prentice. He said the guard who Prentice appeared to be having an affair with was part of it.
HEFFERNAN: Also present, according to prison records though not entirely clear how much he participated, Prentice’s son. So, a real family affair. There’s pictures of Billops, where his face is swollen and bruised. It’s difficult to look at. Prentice says the injuries mysteriously appeared that night, implying he did it to himself. A common accusation I’ve heard from staff. The guards weren’t punished for assault, investigators said there wasn’t sufficient evidence. But Prentice was put on unpaid leave for not writing a report.
HEFFERNAN: So back to Edwards’ interview, the thing to know is this guy, Billops, he’s got a history with Prentice and her people. About 8 months after that first incident, he covered up the window to his cell. That’s not allowed. Guards went into his cell, including Edwards, and that guard Prentice appeared to be having an affair with, and then according to Edwards, Prentice, standing at the door, looking on…
EDWARDS: She had told me she, you know, before we went in, she goes you know nothing in the face. You know, as far as hitting them, whatever. And he he was much squirrelier than I thought and I kicked him in the mouth. You know, he got some stitches.
PRICE: And did she tell you to do that?
EDWARDS: Nope, that was me. I just kind of lost my s***. You know, he’s trying to he’s trying to assault us. And I just saw, you know, wasn’t even thinking and I did it.
PRICE: OK, gotcha. And she knew it. She knew that you had kicked him.
EDWARDS: I don’t know. I mean, there’s so much going on right there. You know, I don’t know for sure if she saw me do it, you know, but I mean, I told her I did.
PRICE: I gotcha, been there. Done it. Yeah. Sometimes inmates get their a** whooped.
HEFFERNAN: In a report, staff wrote Billops tried to run out of the cell, but no one, including Edwards, mentioned that kick. Which they should have, it’s supposed to be in the official version of anything important that happened. In her report, Prentice says Billops had a lip injury, but didn’t say anything about Billops getting kicked — even though Edwards said he told her he did it. As far as I can tell, this time, there weren’t any repercussions for any of the staff.
HEFFERNAN: The thing that struck me most when I pieced together the Billops incidents is how casual Edwards is, like these kinds of things are so normal, it’s almost inconsequential. At one point he says he knows he was in the wrong with how he treated Billops. But then, after admitting all this, Edwards basically says— but none of this is serious, right? Happens all the time?
EDWARDS: As far as like serious incidents, I was never involved in anything and anything real, real serious, I mean, would you flub a story a little bit?Yeah, you know, if you say the guy, you know, you got him in the cell and then he tried and he tried spinning on you or , maybe he didn’t, you know, but you just roughed them up a little more than what he had to be. And I’m not going to say that never, you know, never happened.
PRICE: I gotcha man trust me. I’m with you dude, we’re on the same page. I get it,
EDWARDS: Other things… I mean, like I say, I lied on incident reports before, but I think basically any or any officer that ever worked there probably has.
EDWARDS: And at the time, you’re just doing it just because you’re looking out for everybody else.
PRICE: Sure, you know, anybody that was doing that type of stuff.
EDWARDS: I’m sure everybody.
HEFFERNAN: After 2 hours of talk, Edwards interview ends.
PRICE: All right, well, if that’s the case, we will conclude the interview. Time is 12:55 p.m.
(AMBIENT SOUND FROM UPTOWN PEOPLE’S LAW CENTER)
HEFFERNAN: Besides wading through this interview tape, I also read hundreds of emails, complaints from prisoners, incident reports written by guards, medical documents of injuries. It was a lot to make sense of. So, I took it to one of the first people who I had heard about Prentice from.
HEFFERNAN: Hi, I’m here to see Alan Mills.
HEFFERNAN: The Uptown People’s Law Center is in Chicago, in the storefront of an old two story building. The sign is a simple vinyl banner, stretched above the doorway. The place looks like it’s held together with spit and string. But almost all the major class action lawsuits in Illinois prisons lead back to here. Specifically to Alan Mills. He’s the executive director and has been working there since 1979.
ALAN MILLS: Hey team.
HEFFERNAN: Hi. Alan, it’s good to see you
MILLS: You too. Good to see anyone.
HEFFERNAN: The building is a maze inside. Like the offices were shaken up and rolled like dice. At one spot, you have to go outside on the sidewalk to get between them.
MILLS: I would suggest your coat.
HEFFERNAN: On the walls is artwork made by prisoners.
MILLS: Uh, people get very creative. I don’t know what he actually used. Skittles are. If you ever see color, it’s probably Skittles that people are using.
HEFFERNAN: There is a floor to ceiling bookshelf full of letters from prisoners asking for help. Staff say more than 100 letters a week come in, and they read and respond to every single one. Over the years Mills said they’ve seen a pattern emerge. With Prentice, but other staff too… A cycle of retaliation.
HEFFERNAN: Describe to me what you’ve heard and understand about how cycles of retaliation might work inside?
MILLS: Yeah. I mean. I’ve heard about it, I’ve sued about it. It happens all of the time, rather than allowing the disciplinary process to do its job. Guards often will take it upon themselves to immediately impose their own discipline against the prisoner. Sort of you hit one of ours, so we’re going to hit you even harder. And as I said before, guards ultimately are going to win those battles.
HEFFERNAN: So there may be retaliation cycles, but somebody really has the upper hand.
HEFFERNAN: The stories he heard from people inside often unfold like this: A prisoner will do something a guard doesn’t like, maybe something big, like an assault, throwing a bodily fluid. Maybe something small, like just running his mouth. Then staff will retaliate. Conveniently forget to give someone a meal. Maybe get physical, maybe use pepper spray, and it will just keep escalating. Over and over again — the same pattern. When I show Mills the emails, the medical reports of injuries. Nothing surprises him. Still, when he reads this stuff, I can see him having a physical reaction. Moving uneasily in his chair. Even flinching like someone tried to hit him.
MILLS: it’s disturbing to see it in black and white. It just is. I mean, again, you know, it happens all the time. But to see how? How confident they are in themselves that they can just write this down in a format that anybody can read. I don’t know if it’s, you know, the good way to think of this is that they’re technologically ignorant and don’t think about the fact that somebody might actually look at emails some day and think they’re really private when obviously they’re on a state system so they’re not. But I’m afraid that the real answer is they know perfectly well. Nobody cares.
HEFFERNAN: And … in these allegations of abuse.. there is one person’s name that comes up a lot… Susan Prentice.
HEFFERNAN: How often does her name come up in letters or calls?
MILLS: Oh, at Pontiac for a while, anyway, it was coming up daily. I mean, more than daily, multiple times a day in the letters, everybody who was for a while, she’s in charge of the, of the unit that has the mental health unit in it, and everybody there would complain about her all of the time.
HEFFERNAN: Those complaints had been stacking up for years in letters to the Uptown People’s Law Center and now Prentice is sitting across from someone who has a laid out a case using her own emails of how she is framing prisoners and if not beating them up then at least enabling it to happen.It seems Strandberg, the police officer, has given up any pretense of being friendly, building rapport. The investigator from the department of corrections… remember he’s in the room too… Also says they’ve got the goods for criminal charges…
STRANDBERG: You know a lot of unethical things go on in this facility, you know a lot of inmates who get their asses beat in this facility and that you turn a blind eye or you support it. And that’s fine. But I’m telling you what, that’s unethical and that’s wrong and it is inappropriate. And you know these things and we know, you know it, and we have the facts that you do do it.
PRENTICE: I don’t do it, I report what I witnessed.
STRANDBERG: If you want to stick to that, that’s fine.
STRANDBERG: I’ve been a f****** police officer for 22 years, and you’ve been a major for, you’ve been in Department of Corrections for 23 years. There is stuff that we see out there. And has it been reported? No. So for you to say in all your years in this facility, you have never seen anything go on without reporting.
PRENTICE: I never said that to you.
STRANDBERG: That’s b******* Kim and you know it.
PRENTICE: I never said that to you.
STRANBERG: That’s b*******.
PRENTICE: I didn’t say that to you.
STRANDBERG: You said you report everything you see and that’s b*******.
PRENTICE: What did I say?
STRANDBERG: You said if I saw it, I report it.
STRANDBERG: My question is in all these years, OK? For instance, twenty years. My question is you… you’ve looked a blind eye to several things, to many things. That’s why I’m asking you. Yes or no?
PRENTICE: Depending on, depending on what it is.
STRANDBERG: Well you’re splitting hairs.
PRENTICE: It does depend, no I’m not splitting hairs. It does depend on what it is.
PRENTICE: You know, inmates, you know, what does an inmate, you know, throw something on somebody and they didn’t feed him a tray might I turn a blind eye. Yeah, I don’t necessarily know it for sure. But whatever OK, come on. We’re talking about somebody being beat up.
STRANDBERG: Come on, you know they get beat up, you know they get beat up Kim.
PRENTICE: I’m not doing it. It’s not happening.
STRANDBERG: You know. Other people do it for you or you let it happen.
PRENTICE: Absolutely not, absolutely not.
NOBLE: you lied in a report. To get a guy more seg time. How is that OK?
PRENTICE: I never said it was okay. I mean, I, just like I told you, I don’t know what my mindset was when I wrote it, I don’t know what my mindset was when I talked to my husband.
NOBLE: That’s official misconduct. That’s a felony.
PRENTICE: I understand that.
NOBLE: Talking to these guys conspiring to beat an inmate up . That’s official misconduct. That’s a felony.
PRENTICE: But we didn’t do it.
NOBLE: If you.
PRENTICE: I don’t, I guess I don’t understand.
NOBLE: But what else have you done? If you’re willing to do these two things.
PRENTICE: Obviously I wasn’t willing to do it or we would have done it.
STRANDBERG: Well you did this one. You’ve admitted to it already.
PRENTICE: I didn’t. I said, I don’t know why I said that. I know. And I don’t I don’t know why I said that.
STRANDBERG: All right.
PRENTICE: You know, I’m trying to be honest with you as far as that goes.
STRANDBERG: All right.
STRANDBERG: Nothing else to talk about. OK. Anything else you want to say about anything regarding this? no? OK, this will conclude the interview. The time is 12:59 p.m.
HEFFERNAN: After this interview, state police forwarded their investigation to prosecutors to decide on criminal charges. But, charges were never brought. Edwards is still working at the Illinois Department of Human Services, as a caseworker, he never responded to our questions. Prentice would not comment either.
HEFFERNAN: And in response to our detailed list of questions, the Illinois Department of Corrections said only that they take excessive force allegations extremely seriously and have a process in place to conduct thorough investigations. They said, quote ‘When investigations are substantiated, IDOC will take disciplinary action up to and including termination.’
HEFFERNAN: But here is what actually happened in Prentice’s case, they did open an investigation, looking at the same emails the police did, to decide if she should be disciplined at work, and that investigation did conclude that Prentice gave false information on a report. But, she wasn’t fired.
MILLS: And what it tells me is nothing has changed. You know, for decades. It was pretty clear that the way to get promotions in the Department of Corrections was to be abusive towards inmates and that the abusive people end up being the supervisors. I thought that some of that had changed and they were doing a much more better job of professionalizing at least the warden level, but apparently down at the, what is she a major right? Major Prentice? Yes.
HEFFERNAN: She’s a major.
MILLS: Right now, at the major level that is still true, that your ability, your willingness to be brutal will only get you promoted.
HEFFERNAN: Why can somebody like this have this much power?
MILLS: Um, because our prison system is based on inflicting punishment at that’s all they do.
HEFFERNAN: I think what Mills is getting at here is maybe the state doesn’t fire people like Prentice because they are doing their job. Actually doing what they’ve been asked to do . At one point in his police interview, Edwards alludes to something similar, at least as I understand him. He’s talking about the first incident with the prisoner named Billops. That’s the one where there is a picture of him with a swollen eye and bruised face, the one where Prentice got a short suspension over her failure to report.
HEFFERNAN: After the incident…Edwards says Prentice… and members of her team, including him.. Got moved out of that cell house— the cell house with so many mentally ill prisoners. But… after a few months— he said administrators moved Prentice and her team right back Edward’s theory? The other guards couldn’t handle it. What she did worked. Her methods kept people under control. And that’s what the bosses wanted.
EDWARDS: Because she’s one of the only majors. I think that could that could handle it mentally. And, you know, she comes in and brings her crew with her and within a couple of weeks, it’s kind of more cleaned up, you know, so she’s just in my eyes, she’s the best.
HEFFERNAN: Prentice kept her job. Until she retired in 2021. She was never charged. But somebody else was: Frederick Walker, the guy Prentice accused of throwing urine, even though she thought it was water. In his case, the State’s Attorney did decide to bring felony charges for that very incident. Those charges were eventually dropped, but only after we uncovered Prentice’s emails and started asking questions.
HEFFERNAN: Next week, we look at a prison trial that did happen. In fact, multiple trials of another man, also with mental illness, also incarcerated at Pontiac.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So he went in for seven years and all of a sudden he’s not coming home for a hundred years. What in the hell happened that got us to that point?
HEFFERNAN: And we hear about the person behind these decisions, someone who doesn’t work for the prison. The local state’s attorney — elected by citizens of the county where the prison is located, with the power to decide when prisoners, or guards, get charged. That’s next time on Motive…
Special thanks to Matt Topic and Rachel Eun at Lovey and Lovey.