Illinois Prisons Halt Visits To Protect Against COVID-19, Advocates Call For Release Of Elderly Prisoners

Corrections Department says it will increase access to free phone calls and video visits.

Pontiac Prison
The Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Illinois. The department of corrections is suspending prison visits in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. Robert Wildeboer / WBEZ
Pontiac Prison
The Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Illinois. The department of corrections is suspending prison visits in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. Robert Wildeboer / WBEZ

Illinois Prisons Halt Visits To Protect Against COVID-19, Advocates Call For Release Of Elderly Prisoners

Corrections Department says it will increase access to free phone calls and video visits.

The Illinois Department of Corrections is temporarily suspending visits to keep prisoners and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. A spokesperson says the department will increase access to phone calls and video visiting and is making sanitizer, antibacterial soap, and cleaning supplies available to staff and prisoners.

People in prisons are at heightened risk of the novel coronavirus because of close quarters, poor sanitation, limited medical care and an aging population, according to prison watchdogs.

Illinois says it is screening new prisoners for COVID-19 but has not answered questions about whether it has access to any coronavirus tests or the space to effectively quarantine prisoners if there is an outbreak. The prison has also not said if it will allow access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which is what health professionals recommend to prevent COVID-19.

With the cancellation of visits the department announced it will provide all prisoners with funds for two 20-minute phone calls and one 15-minute video visit.

Some advocates are calling the department to review prisoners for early release if they are at particular risk for getting sick because of their age or medical condition.

The Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison says it sent a letter to the Governor’s office asking it to provide “medical furloughs or compassionate release” to as many as possible. They argue such a move would not only protect prisoners but also staff.

According to a 2019 report by an independent monitor on Illinois’ healthcare in prisons, 7,265 prisoners, 19% of the IDOC population, is fifty years of age or older. Nearly one thousand were between 65 and 79. Another 61 inmates were over 80.

The monitor said that “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 to appropriate settings in the community.”

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a question whether he is considering early release for some prisoners.

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