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SPRINGFIELD -- Against the backdrop of a rise in inmate grievances at the state's only maximum-security women's prison, Illinois officials say they are investigating ways to boost the number of female prison guards.

Although an agency spokeswoman offered no details for how top prison brass may approach the situation, officials said they are exploring ways to increase gender-specific hiring.

"The Illinois Department of Corrections is committed to finding ways to increase female and minority recruitment within the department," said Stacey Solano.

That statement came in response to a recent report issued by the Chicago-based John Howard Association, which said it received a number of unconfirmed reports from inmates at the state's all-female maximum-security prison in Dwight that male correctional officers have acted in ways that were physically aggressive, inappropriate or sexually suggestive.

The prison watchdog organization found the total number of grievances filed by inmates alleging staff misconduct nearly doubled during the first half of 2011, compared to all of 2010.

Association chief John Maki said male correctional officers can play an important role in female prisons, but they shouldn't be working in cellblocks where privacy issues may arise.

"Everything is out in the open in a prison, including the showers and the bathrooms," said Maki, who commended the agency for attempting to boost the numbers of female guards. "Male officers in living quarters could traumatize female inmates."

Solano also said female guards are critical at both male and female prisons to deal with strip searches and pat searches of both inmates and visitors.

Illinois operates all-female prisons in Dwight, Decatur and Lincoln. Compared to the massively overcrowded male prisons, the John Howard Association gives generally high marks to the operation of the state's prisons for women.

But, problems between male guards and female prisoners have occurred over the years.

In 2008, for example, two federal lawsuits alleged a pattern of sexual misconduct and repeated inmate rapes at Dwight.

The John Howard report, written after a team of observers visited the facility in August 2011, noted a number of inmates said both male and female guards were fair, kind and even-handed. But the report also noted concern by some prisoners over having male guards.

"A great number of inmates expressed distress over lack of privacy and the feeling that their bodies were thoroughly exposed and on display to observation and surveillance by male officers in the housing units," the report noted.

According to corrections' officials, the current ratio of male to female guards throughout the state's sprawling prison system is 5.4 males to 1 female.

During fiscal years 2010 and 2011, the state hired 216 female guards and 1,236 male guards. In the current fiscal year, 33 females have been hired compared to 107 males.

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