A Year Into The Pandemic, Illinois Prisons Still Have No Plan For In-Person Visits

Kim Henry and Von Jones
Kim Henry poses for a photo in prison with the love of her life Von Jones. The two have not had an in-person visit since shutdowns were imposed due to the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Kim Henry
Kim Henry and Von Jones
Kim Henry poses for a photo in prison with the love of her life Von Jones. The two have not had an in-person visit since shutdowns were imposed due to the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Kim Henry

A Year Into The Pandemic, Illinois Prisons Still Have No Plan For In-Person Visits

Despite their long separation, Von Jones remains the love of Kim Henry’s life.

“He is the father of my child, grandfather of my three grandchildren. He’s a major part of the family, even though he’s not there. He encourages us. He consoles us. He supports us. You know, he loves us,” Henry said.

Jones has been locked up in an Illinois prison for more than two decades with no chance of parole.

Before the pandemic, Henry would make the 45-minute drive from her home in Carbondale to Menard prison in southern Illinois every weekend to see Jones, sit with him, hold hands and hug.

But on March 14, 2020, the Illinois Department of Corrections halted in-person visitations to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Henry said she lost “a major support” in her life.

And for the people inside, like Jones, the end of in-person visits have been part of a really difficult year living in Illinois prisons. COVID-19 precautions have meant stricter rules around movement. There have been lockdowns and quarantines because of positive tests. Volunteer-led programming has been halted.

“This year has been really rough on him,” Henry said of Jones. “He would have to be losing some of his humanity, because you’ve got no visits, no human contact. No sense that anyone loves you.”

Earlier this month. the department of corrections finished giving out the first round of vaccine shots at all of its facilities.

According to the department, 63% of Illinois inmates took the vaccine. Only 27% of staff did.

But still, advocates and people with incarcerated loved ones say the state needs to figure a way to allow for in-person visits again.

So far, the department of corrections has not offered a plan or indicated what benchmarks would need to be met before things can start returning to normal for Illinois’ 29,000 inmates.

“You know, Governor [JB] Pritzker set out guidelines for nail salons, hair salons, bars, restaurants … so why hasn’t he set out guidelines for prisons?” said Julie Anderson, whose son is incarcerated at Illinois River prison in western Illinois. “They’re under his control. It really is upsetting to me.”

Anderson points to CDC guidelines about how vaccinated people can be inside together, and said even without the vaccine, the state could set up outdoor visiting areas with rules around capacity and masking. She said based on her experiences visiting state facilities, many of them would take minimal work to allow for outdoor visitation as the weather gets warmer.

She believes the state hasn’t done that “because they don’t have to. They don’t care.”

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the independent watchdog the John Howard Association, has been having conversations with prison officials about trying to reopen the prisons to visitors and volunteers.

She said so far, the state hasn’t given any answers.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said they’re hopeful indoor and outdoor visits will be available at prisons by the summer, but she didn’t answer what criteria need to be met for that to happen and wouldn’t give a specific target date.

Hess said they expanded opportunities for video visits and phone calls for inmates to help make up for the loss of in-person visits.

But people with loved ones inside said the substitutes set up for in-person visits over the past year have not been up to snuff.

Vollen-Katz said the substitutes are “just not nearly good enough.”

“And they wouldn’t be even if functioning properly, but they’re not. So, for instance, video visits have been plagued with tech issues,” Vollen-Katz said. “And access to phones has been really limited due to limitations on movement related to trying to contain COVID. So, everywhere you look, that which might be frustrating for some people is just incredibly, overwhelmingly frustrating for people who are incarcerated.”

Even when they’re working, the video chats are limited to only 15 minutes. Henry, whose partner Jones is locked up at Menard, said that is not enough time for anything but talking about “business,” like pending appeals and commissary accounts.

Henry said it feels prisons and prisoners are being overlooked in reopening talks because they are invisible to people not directly touched by them. And that is taking its toll.

“I need a hug, you know?” Henry said. “After a year, I need some type of hug. I need to be able to hold his hand.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.