Illinois Officials Say They Reacted Quickly And Aggressively To COVID-19 Threat In Prisons

Stateville Correctional Center
Stateville prison in Crest Hill, Ill., where 95 men have tested positive for COVID-19. Civil rights groups are suing to force Illinois to release thousands of prisoners to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The state says the cases ignore the drastic steps officials have already taken to protect Illinoisans, including those behind bars. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Stateville Correctional Center
Stateville prison in Crest Hill, Ill., where 95 men have tested positive for COVID-19. Civil rights groups are suing to force Illinois to release thousands of prisoners to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The state says the cases ignore the drastic steps officials have already taken to protect Illinoisans, including those behind bars. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Illinois Officials Say They Reacted Quickly And Aggressively To COVID-19 Threat In Prisons

Illinois officials are pushing back against an effort to immediately release more than 10,000 prisoners in Illinois as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

Civil rights groups filed several cases last week arguing the state and Gov. JB Pritzker have not been moving quickly enough to stop the spread of the disease in prisons. But in a filing Monday, in one lawsuit, attorneys for the state argued that the request should be denied because such a mass release would threaten public safety and ignores the efforts the state has already made.

“The Court and the public need only watch Governor Pritzker’s daily press briefing … to see that the Governor, the Department, and the State have implemented immediate and drastic steps to address the COVID-19 public health emergency to protect all Illinois citizens, including those incarcerated in state prisons,” the filing states.

There are at least 95 people incarcerated at Illinois’ Stateville prison who have tested positive for COVID-19, and two have died. Prisons are petri dishes for the virus, because crowded conditions make social distancing nearly impossible, and advocates have argued the only way to keep people behind bars safe is to let some people go home.

In the court filing arguing against the federal court’s intervention, Illinois officials say they’ve already stopped new admissions into the state’s prisons and have granted early release or medical furloughs to over 500 people behind bars. The filing says the state’s total prison population has dropped by about 1,000 people over the last month.

The governor’s office also issued an executive order on Monday that would allow more prisoners to qualify for medical furloughs. Under the order, prisoners can be temporarily released for medical purposes, as long as the disaster proclamation issued by Pritzker in response to the pandemic remains in place.

“These are the actions of officials who are responding quickly and aggressively to combat COVID-19,” the state argues.

The cases were filed by civil rights groups including Uptown People’s Law Center, Equip for Equality, the MacArthur Justice Center and the law firm of Loevy and Loevy.

“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.”

A lawyer for the plaintiffs says a hearing has been set for Friday.

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