Illinois prisons are a tinderbox for a potential coronavirus outbreak, but advocates and family of prisoners say the Department of Corrections isn’t providing the basic supplies to keep both staff and prisoners safe.
While some advocates praised the department’s stated plan to protect prisons, they say that some individual facilities aren’t executing it.
The Illinois Department of Corrections promised last week that “hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap and cleaning supplies are being made available to all staff and incarcerated individuals.” But family members of people in prisons report the supplies aren’t actually being distributed at every facility.
The advocacy group Restore Justice said more than a dozen people have reported in an online survey that their incarcerated loved ones did not have access to necessary supplies.
“We're getting reports of inmates using their own soap that they've purchased through their commissary to clean common areas themselves. Once that runs out, where is it coming from?” said Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice.
Alan Mills is executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, which won a major legal battle that led to federal oversight of Illinois prison health care. He said prisoners are normally given no more than one "hotel room size" bar of soap per week.
“That is not enough soap to wash your hands in the manner every medical professional is advising: after touching any potentially contaminated surface, ... before and after leaving one's cell or having contact with someone else,” Mills said.
“We understand that the Department of Corrections is working to purchase additional soap, but the fact that they don't have enough on hand is an indication of just how unprepared they are for this public health emergency,” he said.
Uptown People’s Law Center is also working to track the department’s response using an online survey for families.
IDOC did not reply to a request for comment on reports of soap not being distributed. But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents many prison staff members, said that they are monitoring needed supplies closely.
“Soap and hand sanitizer are at a premium and we hear that the situation is better at some facilities than others,” AFSCME Council 31 spokesperson Anders Lindall wrote. “We understand that IDOC has issued [and subsequently reiterated] directives making clear to wardens that these supplies can and should be purchased as needed, and we are urging every facility to do so at once.”
Julie Anderson’s incarcerated son told her that his wing had been on lock down and not able to access commissary to purchase additional soap, and no extra soap had been distributed.
“It's terrifying to me,” Anderson said.
Another woman whose brother is housed at Stateville said staff handed out a bleach solution, presumably for cleaning cells, but that he still had not been given hand soap.
Illinois prisons are at particular risk for a COVID1-9 outbreak because of close quarters and an aging population. According to a 2019 report by an independent monitor on Illinois’ health care in prisons, 7,265 prisoners, 19% of the IDOC population, is 50 years of age or older. Nearly 1,000 were between 65 and 79. Another 61 inmates were over 80.
A memo sent by the department to prisoners acknowledged that social distancing is “not practical in prison where there is not ample space to spread out,” encouraged prisoners to practice hygiene and said there would be mandatory temperature checks.
Besides encouraging more access to sanitation supplies, criminal justice advocates across the state have been calling for the department to release elderly prisoners to help protect at-risk people behind bars and to free up space for isolation should there be an outbreak.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker indicated that may be a possibility during his daily COVID-19 update on Wednesday.
“There are some very dangerous people who should not be considered, but there are others that are very vulnerable and who have committed some non-violent offense and who should be first in line if we were to do something like that," Prtizker said.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter at WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @shannon_h.