Civil rights groups are suing the state of Illinois in an attempt to force the immediate release of vulnerable prisoners as COVID-19 spreads behind bars. A COVID-19 outbreak at Stateville prison southwest of Chicago has already led to one death, over a dozen hospitalizations and several men on ventilators.
“Stateville’s reality might have been avoided if the governor and [the Illinois Department of Corrections] had acted with the urgency and scope required to mitigate the oncoming harm,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, IDOC has continued to house thousands of elderly, disabled, and medically vulnerable prisoners who could be released, many of whom are approaching their release dates and have homes in which they could more safely quarantine.”
Prisons are vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 because close quarters make social distancing nearly impossible and access to hygiene supplies can be difficult.
The lawsuit was filed by groups including Uptown People’s Law Center, Equip for Equality, the MacArthur Justice Center and the law firm of Loevy and Loevy.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Pritzker has said in press conferences that the state is taking action to stop the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. Pritzker has said in press conferences that the state has been reviewing cases of low-level offenders in prison and released at least 300, but has been scant on details about how the review process works and what criteria is being used. Advocates argue much more could be done, quickly.
The lawsuit calls for a range of prisoners to be put on medical furlough or transferred to home detention, including those who are medically vulnerable because of illnesses and people 55 years and older. They must have less than one year remaining on their sentence and be eligible for home detention.
One of the named plaintiffs is William Richard, a 66 year-old prisoner at Dixon Correctional who currently shares a 12-foot by 7-foot cell with three other prisoners, making social distancing impossible according to the lawsuit.
"With only a few months left to serve on his sentence, plaintiff William Richard's life is on the line. With chronic respiratory problems and a serious heart condition, the 66 year old needs to be released now so that he can safely quarantine at his family home," said Amanda Antholt, a lawyer with Equip for Equality.
Beyond the health of prisoners, the lawsuit raises concerns for prison staff and the surrounding communities. The lawsuit quotes a doctor from Amita St. Joseph’s Medical Center in southwest suburban Joliet who said the hospital was overwhelmed with over a dozen cases of Stateville prisoners needing COVID 19 care, including some on ventilators.
The lawsuit said to avoid similar situations across the state, Illinois must act now.
Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.