Illinois lawmakers are considering a bill that would force prisons and jails in Illinois to provide information about how people in their custody die. The Illinois Department of Corrections often doesn’t provide basic information to families or the public and keeps shoddy and incomplete records, according to documents turned over to WBEZ by prison administrators.
The nonpartisan prison watchdog John Howard Association is pushing the legislation.
“When we hear in the news, stories about people who have died in prison, in horrible circumstances, it’s impossible to find out exactly what happened. And everything about that is wrong. It’s wrong at a humanitarian level and it’s wrong at a policy level,” said the association’s executive director Jennifer Vollen-Katz.
Vollen Katz said transparency around prison and jail deaths would help prevent physical abuse and medical neglect.
At least 166 people died while in Illinois prisons from January 2017 to September 2018, according to records obtained by WBEZ. In around half of those cases, IDOC’s research department had no cause of death listed. When WBEZ requested records on specific deaths, the department claimed that in some cases, it didn’t have even basic information — like death certificates or death reports.
Corrections officials have repeatedly refused to do an interview about how the department investigates or tracks prisoner deaths. The lack of transparency extends to families, who sometimes can’t get simple details about how their loved one died.
Sheila Fane’s son Desmond died when he was 30 years old in 2016. Her son had a heart condition, but had been able to manage it with proper medical care. She said she called the Department of Corrections to get information on her son’s death, but prison staff would not talk to her.
She was still trying to get details about her son’s death about a year and a half later when she got the call that her nephew, Earl Fane, had also died in prison. Earl Fane was just 26 years old.
“Not having the information is like not having a closure,” said Fane in an interview in December 2018.
WBEZ tracked down records about her son Desmond Fane and was able to identify him as prisoner whose death was reviewed by an independent expert, as part of a court case filed by ACLU of Illinois and Uptown People’s Law Center.
The report shows multiple errors made by health care staff that led to Desmond Fane’s death. For example, Desmond Fane was preparing for a surgery when he was sent to prison. A letter from his doctor was in the prison medical record, but the doctor was never contacted, and the surgery was never done. The prison also gave him a medication that can have severe side effects given his condition. The report says there’s no clear reason for prescribing that medication and that the medication may have even caused, or at least contributed to his death. The independent expert determined Desmond Fane’s death was preventable.
When Sheila Fane saw those records, she said her son “didn’t get the death sentence but in the long run, they gave him the death sentence.”
Fane said she still has not been able to get details about how her nephew, Earl Fane, died. The hospital told her he died of pneumonia. But her nephew was just 26 years old and, as far as she understood, healthy. She said she doesn’t know if his death was preventable like her son’s.
Prisoner rights advocates say the lack of transparency around prison deaths makes it easier for prison officials to get away with abusing prisoners rights.
“It makes meaningful oversight impossible,” said Alan Mills, an attorney with Uptown People’s Law Center which often represents prisoners in lawsuits against the Department of Corrections.
The newly proposed legislation would require that whenever a person dies in the custody of a law enforcement agency or at a correctional facility, the death must be investigated and reported to the attorney general within 30 days. It also requires officials to notify family as soon as possible of a death and give them factual information about the “circumstances surrounding the death in custody.”
The bill’s lead sponsor is Illinois state Rep. Camille Lilly.The Department of Corrections says it is reviewing the bill, which has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee.
Shannon Heffernan is criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.