In early April, as the state of Illinois was being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. JB Pritzker issued an executive order on coronavirus protections focused on the 37,000 inmates locked up in state prisons.
That April 6 executive order said “the vast majority” of those inmates were “especially vulnerable to contracting and spreading COVID-19” because of their “close proximity and contact with each other.”
“It is critical to provide the [state’s prison director] with discretion to use medical furloughs to allow medically vulnerable inmates to temporarily leave IDOC facilities,” the order read.
But according to data from the Illinois Department of Corrections, only 12 Illinois inmates have been granted medical furloughs.
Experts say it’s just one symbol of the governor’s failure to protect inmates and guards from the dangers of COVID-19 in prisons and their surrounding communities, a failure rooted in his prioritizing politics over public health. And critics on both sides of the aisle point out that the extent of the problem in Illinois prisons remains unknown because of the administration’s continuing refusal to do widespread testing of inmates.
One lawsuit filed against the state prison system contends the state has only tested about 2% of its prison population. The state itself has not reported the total number of tests it has administered in prisons. State records show the Illinois Department of Corrections has about 3,000 COVID-19 tests available throughout its facilities. That would be enough to test about 6% of the agency’s inmates and staff.
Out of the tests that have been given, the Illinois Department of Corrections reports that 275 inmates and 188 prison staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus. At least a dozen people have died.
Advocates say many of those cases and deaths were preventable if the state had made significant moves to reduce its prison population.
State Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, said early on in the coronavirus crisis, he had conversations with the Pritzker administration, and it was clear the governor wanted to focus on health and safety measures within prisons rather than try to significantly reduce the population.
“That’s why we didn’t get a lot of medical furloughs, and that’s why we didn’t get a lot of releases of people, because the governor didn’t want to do that,” Ford said. “The governor should have made sure that he put the science first because his idea behind all of this was that he was going to always follow the science, and the science said that you cannot practice social distancing in prison.”
While the governor’s office and Department of Corrections have not released data specifying how many people have been released in response to COVID-19, a review of all releases suggests the state did not significantly increase the number of inmates released from prison.
Last year in March and April about 4,000 inmates were released from the Illinois Department of Corrections. In March and April of 2020, as the state’s own health expert warned about the dangers of the virus in correctional settings, about 4,200 people got out of Illinois prisons, an increase of about 5.5%.
“Five percent is not nearly the kind of efforts that were needed to preserve people’s health,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, head of the prison watchdog John Howard Association. “There was a lack of interest in facing difficult political questions and conversations, because policy and public health dictated the need for quick release of many people and that simply did not happen. And that’s not a policy decision. That’s a political decision.”
Vollen-Katz said her organization calculated there were “thousands of people that could have been safely released” from Illinois prisons based on inmates’ offense level, age and time left on their sentences.
“[That] would have allowed for more social distancing and more protective measures to be put in place to protect everybody who lives and works inside the facilities,” Vollen-Katz said. “Quite frankly, that just did not happen.”
In a statement, Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department has been “prioritizing” reviews of inmates who are eligible for up to six months of sentence credit that would allow them to be released early. She did not answer why the state had not released more prisoners.
Hess said they are isolating and testing all inmates who have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing.
Republican state lawmakers agreed that the 5.5% increase in releases was not a significant uptick in the face of pandemic.
State Sen. Steve McClure, R-Jacksonville, said he was sure there were some nonviolent offenders still locked up who maybe should have been released but haven’t been.
However, McClure also criticized Pritzker for hiding the ball on who actually has been released and why, raising concerns about violent offenders being released early.
Information from the state shows that in March, April and May, Pritzker commuted the sentences of 20 inmates. Seven of those inmates were serving time for murder convictions, five were for drug crimes.
“It’s difficult, I think, for anyone to make the argument that the governor is not releasing enough people when you see the extent to which they’ve been released and the violent crimes in which many of them have committed,” McClure said.
Executive clemencies are a typical part of state government, not unique to the COVID-19 era, and they are not the only way for an inmate to be released early. Other mechanisms include furloughs and “earned sentence credit” given at the discretion of the prison director.
Lawmakers and advocates complain that the state has not been transparent about any of those releases.
“You know, this wouldn’t be the same argument if you and I could go on the Department of Corrections website and there was a scrolling list [of who has been released and why],” McClure said.
The Department of Corrections has made public a spreadsheet of all exits since March, but that spreadsheet does not include information about why an inmate was granted early release or if it was related to COVID-19 precautions. The governor’s office and the Illinois Department of Corrections have refused to provide that information to WBEZ, advocates or lawmakers on either side of the aisle.
Sheila Bedi, a clinical law professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, said looking at the overall numbers it is “obvious” the Pritzker administration chose to limit the number of people released because of fear of political backlash.
“While those political calculations may be obvious, they’re just simply irrelevant when it comes to saving the lives of these people who are in custody,” Bedi said.