Earl Little died at Pinckneyville prison in southern Illinois on July 6, 2018. He was 33 years old. His family believes he was murdered, but they say they can’t get even basic information about his death from the Illinois Department of Corrections or any other state official.
In a civil lawsuit filed against the warden, the family says they want to know why they can’t see Little’s autopsy report and medical records or get his personal belongings, like letters and photographs his children sent.
“I feel like this is inhumane. It’s been almost four months, and we should have been given something,” said Dana Caley, Little’s sister.
Little was in prison for armed robbery. Caley said it's been difficult to grieve when so much is still unknown. She said Little’s children have started grief counseling and Little’s son said maybe the counselor could tell them what happened to their dad.
The Perry County coroner told WBEZ he could not release any information about the cause of Little's death because of an ongoing investigation. The Department of Corrections confirmed they were investigating, but would also not provide information.
“The Little family would appreciate it if state government officials would find the proper balance between protecting the integrity of an investigation, with their rights as victims of a crime,” said David S. Lipschultz, the family’s lawyer on the lawsuit.
Little is just one of the many people who die behind bars in Illinois. According to the Department of Corrections, at least 166 people died while in Illinois prisons from January of 2017 to September of 2018. In around half of those cases, IDOC’s research department has no cause of death listed. The department said specific facilities may have details. But when WBEZ followed up with another records request, the department claimed that for some prison deaths, it didn’t have even basic records — like death certificates or death reports.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz is executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison watchdog group. She says she regularly hears from families who can’t get information about the death of a loved one.
“Like so many other things that happen in a closed facility, the danger is abuse,” said Vollen-Katz.
Vollen-Katz says transparency is necessary. “It doesn’t mean that everyone is abusing power, but it means there is the potential for that to happen.”
WBEZ has requested an interview with corrections officials to discuss and understand how the department investigates or tracks prisoner deaths. A spokesman has refused the request.