As COVID-19 Spreads, Advocates Sound Alarm For People In Prisons And The Communities Around Them

Stateville maximum security prison
Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, where two men have died from COVID-19. More than a dozen men have been taken from the prison to local hospitals to be treated for the coronavirus. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Stateville maximum security prison
Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, where two men have died from COVID-19. More than a dozen men have been taken from the prison to local hospitals to be treated for the coronavirus. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As COVID-19 Spreads, Advocates Sound Alarm For People In Prisons And The Communities Around Them

Updated Monday at 1:34 p.m.

The night after the first man at Stateville Correctional Center died from COVID-19, a prisoner we’re referring to as “Harold,” said he was watching the nightly news in his cell. (WBEZ has agreed to not identify the prisoner by his real name.) 

The report on ABC Channel 7 in Chicago said the nearby hospital, Saint Joseph Medical Center, was overwhelmed with cases of men from Stateville with COVID-19 symptoms and the doctor being interviewed predicted that 100 men from the prison could die if the situation didn’t get under control.

Harold said the other prisoners on his wing fell silent.

That night, while he was lying in bed, his cellmate asked him if he thought the two of them would be among the dead.

“It’s like there is an invisible man walking through here. And … this invisible man has the power to kill. And nobody can do anything about it,” Harold said.

Stateville has at least 24 staff members, and 56 prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19 and two incarcerated men have died from the disease. Crowded prisons are petri dishes for the virus and once it’s inside, it can spread quickly — and the prison walls don’t keep the disease inside. 

Last week over a dozen men, several needing ventilators, were taken to community hospitals and health care workers warned the prison cases could overwhelm local health facilities.

Advocates say there is a clear solution: Release elderly inmates who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus and pose the least public safety risk because of their age. But despite bold decisions to close schools and mandate that people stay home, advocates say Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker has failed to move decisively to release elderly inmates, possibly because of political concerns over releasing people who committed serious crimes.

An urgent call to release elderly prisoners

The Illinois Department of Corrections said, as of Sunday, it had given early release to approximately 500 people. Pritzker has refused to outline the criteria his office is using to release prisoners but has said that all cases have been reviewed for violent histories.

“Every step we take, with regard to our prison population needs to solve an existing problem, not create a new one,” Prtizker said during one of the daily updates he’s been giving during the pandemic.

Prison advocates say that leaves many elderly inmates still in the crowded prisons, those who have committed violent crimes, but who have already served decades behind bars. They say it’s a group that is at low risk for committing new crimes, but at high risk for COVID-19, and they should not be automatically ruled out for early release without more individualized consideration of their cases.

“People who are older, are far less likely to re-offend. That’s just a basic fact,” John Maki with the Alliance for Safety and Justice, said. “The research on this  is very, very clear.”

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the prison watchdog John Howard Association, said that at the end of 2019 about a thousand people behind bars were over 65 and said many of those people likely committed serious, and violent, crimes when they were young.

“The available data on the population in IDOC age 65 or over shows that the majority have been in prison serving long sentences, frequently for violent or serious offenses,” Vollen-Katz said.

Vollen-Katz said the state has a range of tools it could use to quickly release prisoners from commuting sentences to using medical furloughs.

The governor’s office did not answer questions about releasing more inmates, but it always carries political risk.

“If I had to guess I would think that that’s part of what holds the governor back,” Vollen-Katz said. “It only takes one story, it only takes one person released early to commit a violent crime to undo years of policy reform.”

On Thursday, civil rights groups including Equip for Equality, Uptown People’s Law Center, the MacArthur Justice Center and the law firm Loevy and Loevy, filed a lawsuit to try and force the governor to release more prisoners quickly.

Illinois Republican state Rep. John Cabello said the governor needed to fight it, and such moves were making COVID-19 a threat to public safety and the criminal justice system.

“As a police officer I always felt more concerned for victims and how their lives are impacted by those in our society who are so selfish that they are willing to upend the lives of others in exchange for their interests,” Cabello said.

Justin Hood, Illinois State's Attorney Association President, said he is concerned that early releases would prevent the state from notifying victims of a prisoner's release and that “would not be fair to victims of the violent offenders.”

“It is a shame that these Criminal Justice Advocates are using the pandemic to further their agenda of seeing inmates released from prison early,” Hood said.

A broken prison health care system, before and after COVID-19

The push to release elderly inmates from Illinois prisons is not new. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic experts were ringing the alarm bells about the connection between Illinois’ sick and aging prison population and the ability of the state to provide care. In 2018, a court-appointed expert found numerous examples of preventable deaths in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), and in 2019, a massive lawsuit put the prison’s health care system under federal control.

As part of that litigation an independent, court-appointed monitor advised that the needs of the prison’s aging population are “staggering” and “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.”

As COVID-19 spread at Stateville prison at least 19 prisoners, several needing ventilators, were hospitalized. The Illinois Nurses Association warned that it’s likely all Joliet-area hospitals will be taxed to capacity.

“There are not enough nurses in the ER, ICU and the COVID-19 unit,” Pat Meade, a nurse at Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Illinois, said.

That situation could play out across the state if other prisons have outbreaks and have to start moving inmates into local hospitals for COVID-19.

Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, which filed the lawsuit that led to federal monitoring of Illinois’ prison health care, said an outbreak would hit some other prisons and communities even harder.

Stateville is “frankly one of the better staffed prisons. And it has medical resources in the community that are better than most,” Mills said. “Menard Correctional Center, 2000 prisoners, [is] located in the tiny town of Chester. The entire county has two ICU beds.”

Pritzker promised on Tuesday that people in prison would get the care they need, including hospitalization. He also assured hospitals that the state will give them access to all the equipment and support they could.

“But hospitals that refuse to take on residents of the Department of Corrections will be called out by name, and those that refuse to operate in accordance to their oath can and will be compelled to do so by law,” Pritzker said.

Behind bars anxiety rises

Pritzker has said he is doing everything he can to stop the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. Illinois has stopped taking most new prisoners, ceased almost all visits to the prisons, and put some facilities on lockdown. The Department of Corrections says it’s delivered hand sanitizer and expanded access to video visits for families.

But men at Stateville say the reality they are experiencing doesn’t match with what they’ve heard in news reports. Multiple prisoners report their access to hand sanitizer has been extremely limited, and family members say that video visits have been repeatedly canceled. Prisoners report that since the prison’s been on lockdown, they can’t get to the commissary to buy extra food or to buy stamps to write letters to loved ones.

Lindsey Hess, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said all prisoners were given funds for two phone calls and one video visit and they were unaware of any issues accessing the video visits

“The department recognizes the fear and anxiety families are experiencing and we are utilizing every option at our disposal to protect their incarcerated loved ones,” Hess said.

Harold, the prisoner who spoke to WBEZ after the first prisoner died, said all day long he can hear men’s voices bouncing off the walls in his wing. Some men are asking to see a doctor, some want to talk to a mental health crisis worker, some are just trying to get information about what’s happening.

“They’re anguished, they’re hurt.” Harold said.

Harold said he understands the whole world is stressed right now, but he said inside prison they already didn’t have what they needed before the crisis, and now it just keeps getting worse.

Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at sheffernan@wbez.org.