SPRINGFIELD — When Illinois prison officials scrambled on Labor Day weekend to track down an escaped prisoner, among those involved in the manhunt were specially trained dogs.
But the dogs weren't from the prison system's canine unit.
Because of budget cuts imposed by Gov. Pat Quinn, the Illinois Department of Corrections relied instead on dogs handled by deputies from Crawford County.
According to information obtained by the Freedom of Information Act, the Chicago Democrat's budget-cutting maneuver last year eliminated the positions of the five men who handled the agency's canines.
While the workers landed other jobs within the state's sprawling prison system, the dogs were let go.
Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer said Tuesday that the lack of a canine unit played no role in inmate Jared Carter's ability to remain on the loose for four days after walking away Aug. 30 from a work crew at the minimum-security Robinson Correctional Center.
Shaer said dogs from the sheriff's department were on the scene within 26 minutes of Carter's departure, which would have been faster than any of the state dogs — if the state still had them.
"We weren't shortchanged or hampered in this effort," he said.
A decade ago, the state's seven specially trained dogs were a point of pride for the prison agency.
The unit was in place primarily to search cells for drugs and contraband, and to sniff out problems with visitors and vendors. But they also had the ability to track down escapees like Carter, who eventually was caught an estimated seven miles from the prison.
In 2004, reports show the state had three German shepherds, two Malinois, one Dutch shepherd and a Rottweiler.
By 2012, however, there were only five canine handlers listed on layoff notices issued by the governor. Once those positions were eliminated, the dogs were let go.
When Carter, 31, slipped away from the minimum-security lock-up in eastern Illinois, it triggered a search that included more than 100 employees of the Department of Corrections, as well as the use of helicopters, airplanes, night-vision goggles and personnel from the state police, the U.S. Marshal's office, and local police and sheriff's deputies.
Shaer said the search cost Corrections at least $100,000. The tally will rise as the various agencies submit bills to the state.
It remains unclear how Carter remained free for so long.
"We don't release operational details, even when a walkaway occurs," Shaer said. "We can say that staff was with workers on the prison grounds and the number of staff was the same as always.
"At this point, well into the investigation, there is no evidence that Carter's escape was aided by anyone either in or out of Robinson CC," an Illinois Department of Corrections memo further states.
Along with having no dogs within the agency to search for fugitives, Shaer confirmed that one of the guard towers was not staffed when Carter walked off.
But, he said, Carter's departure spot could not be viewed from the tower anyway. "The tower being manned was not a factor," he added.
The union representing prison employees is not so sure.
Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said the tower has a direct line of sight to the area where Carter had been working.
Lindall said the escape puts a spotlight on staffing problems at the facility.
"Robinson is one of the most overcrowded prisons in the state," he said. "At the same time, critical security measures have been reduced due to lack of staff."
The agency is expected to submit the findings of its investigation into the escape to the Crawford County State's Attorney for consideration of further criminal prosecution of Carter.
Records show Carter is now at the maximum-security Pontiac Correctional Center.