BENTON, Ill. • Two cellphones smuggled into a federal prison by an employee who had an “improper sexual relationship” with an inmate have not been recovered and could be “floating” around, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday.
The comments came as the now former employee of the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., Renee D. Strauss, 42, was sentenced in federal court to four months in prison and ordered to pay $345 in fines and special assessments for smuggling contraband and lying about it. Her prison sentence will be followed by two years of supervised release.
Strauss, 42, of Marion, was a case manager until she resigned in September. She pleaded guilty earlier this year and admitted that she’d smuggled items into the prison on “numerous occasions” over about a four-month period in 2015.
Officials had been tipped to Strauss’ relationship with the inmate. He was not assigned to her, yet they spent “long periods of time” together in her office on Sunday mornings, court documents say. Justice Department investigators interrupted one Sunday morning, and questioned Strauss, who lied about the two packs of Newport cigarettes and two cans of Skoal she had. Prosecutors say she also lied when she claimed she didn’t smuggle in a smartphone the inmate had, which the pair used to exchange calls, texts and photos.
The inmate is identified in court documents only as someone serving a 25-year term. He has declined the Post-Dispatch’s interview request.
Federal sentencing guidelines recommended up to six months in prison for the misdemeanor charges of providing contraband to an inmate and attempting to provide contraband and two felony counts of lying to a federal officer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Cutchin wanted that amount of time, saying that such a sentence could deter other prison employees from similar behavior.
Cutchin said that the risk of the two missing cellphones was greater in Marion, which houses a “communications management unit” where inmates include terrorists and those who’ve threatened or assaulted judges, prosecutors and other federal officials are housed.
The name comes from the restrictions placed on the inmates’ ability to contact the outside world.
Cutchin said that Strauss had already received a break, because prosecutors did not charge her with an offense that would require her to register as a sex offender for life. He explained that although legally an inmate cannot consent to a sexual relationship with a prison employee, the inmate was not coerced by Strauss.
Strauss’ public defender, Judith Kuenneke, wanted probation, citing mental health issues, the vilification Strauss has received in her community and on social media and the effect a prison term would have on her child.
Strauss, voice breaking with tears, told U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert, “I still can’t believe I did this thing.”
“What were you thinking?” responded Gilbert, who pointed out that Strauss continued with the relationship even after knowing she was under suspicion, and lied even when caught with the inmate by investigators.
Gilbert said that “he tossed and turned all night” wrestling with the appropriate sentence.
But he said that he wanted to send a message to other employees about what could happen “if they fall under the spell of an inmate, which you obviously did.”
Strauss began working for the Bureau of Prisons in 2002 and started as a correctional treatment specialist/case manager on Jan. 1, 2012.