Three prisoners and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Health experts say cases of the disease in correctional facilities are particularly alarming because it can spread quickly in the crowded and often unsanitary conditions.
One of the infected prisoners is incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, about an hour southwest of Chicago. The other two prisoners were at the North Lawndale Adult Transition Center in Chicago. In addition, two staff members have tested positive at the Stateville prison and one at Sheridan Correctional Center, which is an hour and a half southwest of Chicago.
“Once the coronavirus is in a prison, it is extremely hard to contain,” said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center.
Mills’ advocacy organization has won major litigation over prison health care. He said the department needs to release as many people as possible from prison, trace who else may have been infected and stop admitting new prisoners.
“If [the department] does not, then within two weeks we will have a human rights disaster on our hands,” Mills said.
Over recent weeks prisoners and staff members have reported they are not getting the supplies they need to keep prisons sanitary.
Multiple prisoners said it took them several days to get soap. And one officer, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the media, told WBEZ that prisoners at Stateville were given cleaning solution to sanitize their cells, but no rags or paper towels, forcing prisoners to use their shirts, sheets or bath towels. That same Stateville guard also told WBEZ that staff were given hand sanitizer, but it didn’t include alcohol, as recommended by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
The Department of Corrections has since said it distributed a large order of soap to facilities across the state and said it is expecting an order of alcohol-based sanitizer this week. The department also said it is now distributing towels specifically for cleaning.
But advocates have been arguing for weeks that the best way to stop the spread of the disease is to begin releasing prisoners, creating necessary space in crowded facilities. They have been calling for medical furloughs or compassionate release of as many prisoners as possible.
“We’ve made sure that across our prisons … we are making space,” Governor JB Pritzker said in a press conference on Wednesday. He said they were looking at low level offenders and the opportunity to release people who are through most of their term. However he didn’t provide numbers on how many people had actually been released yet.
In addition to close quarters, Illinois prisoners are at risk because the population is aging.
According to a 2019 report by an independent monitor on Illinois’ healthcare in prisons, 7,265 prisoners — 19% of the IDOC population — is 50 years old or older. Nearly 1,000 were between 65 and 79. Another 61 inmates were over 80.
The monitor added that “in the near future the IDOC must take the lead to create a pathway to discharge those men and women whose mental and medical conditions make them no longer a risk to society to appropriate settings in the community.”
The Illinois Department of Corrections did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.