Editor's note: The nonprofit news outlet Injustice Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.
CHICAGO — Even as the Illinois Department of Corrections is facing lawsuits contending its officers violated the civil rights of transgender women prisoners, three officers in the department have been publishing posts on Facebook that mocked members of the LGBTQ community and wrote disparagingly of homosexuality.
Two of the officers are named as defendants in one lawsuit by a transgender woman.
The department issued a statement in response to the Injustice Watch reporting saying it had placed all three officers on leave pending an investigation. The statement from IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess says the department "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."
All three correctional officers identified themselves as department of corrections employees on their Facebook pages.
Last month, correctional officer John Mercks went on Facebook and shared a looped video clip writing, along with a crying-laughing emoji, "what it's like working at a prison."
The video shows a cut of actor Bruce Willis smiling in response to a person dressed in a short skirt, followed by Willis' smile vanishing as it becomes clear that the individual wearing the skirt does not conform to traditional gender roles.
Mercks has shared a handful of offensive and 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 showing a professional wrestler in the process of body slamming another wrestler to the ground with text reading: "I assisted the inmate to the floor! Corrections 101."
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"The coincidence is unreal right now," Mercks wrote alongside the meme with a crying-laughing emoji.
Mercks is currently named in a lawsuit brought by a transgender woman who said that when she was imprisoned at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center in 2017, Mercks and several other officers beat and sexually assaulted her.
Strawberry Hampton, the woman who brought the suit, contended 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 alleged in the lawsuit, Mercks shared an offensive and explicit meme on Facebook that displayed an image of Caitlyn Jenner, along with the term "tranny."
Mercks also shared several anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and racist memes. In one, he shared an image of a plow driving through a pile of dead bodies along with a joke about Jews. Another shows several hanged men, described in the image as "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 commented "Dear gawd" with a crying-laughing emoji.
Correctional Sgt. Joseph Dudek, also named in Hampton's lawsuit, is identified as one of the officers Hampton said in the complaint beat and assaulted her. Dudek has publicly shared memes on Facebook that make fun of online support for Muslim refugees and transgender individuals, and 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.