Updated on Monday at 8:21 p.m.
A man incarcerated at Stateville prison in Illinois has died from COVID-19 and another dozen have been hospitalized, including several requiring ventilators according to Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
At a press conference with Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker Monday, Ezike said another 77 men with symptoms of COVID-19 at the facility were being held in isolation, and 11 staff members were showing signs of the disease and isolating.
Prisoners and their families say they are scared.
Deborah Wilson’s husband, Joseph Wilson, is incarcerated at Stateville. She said she usually talks to him everyday on the phone. Last Monday, he started feeling sick and by Wednesday she could tell it was very serious.
“He was speaking really weak and could hardly get his words out,” Wilson said.
Wilson said by Thursday she got word we had taken him to the hospital, but said it’s been hard to get details from the Department of Corrections and she is worried about him.
Both staff and prisoners have told WBEZ they are scared for what the future holds.
“We’re all kinda feeling like fish in a barrel here; just waiting to be picked off,” one prisoner, whose name we were not authorized to use, wrote in a message to WBEZ.
One Stateville guard, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, said staff coming to work Monday got a mask. But some staff members did not want to accompany prisoners to the hospital, for fear of exposing themselves to the virus. The guard said they could hear ambulances all day.
Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31, said the union, which represents prison workers, is working closely with the Department of Corrections. He praised the state’s decision to stop accepting new prisoners from county jails.
“But it’s still a very high-risk environment in which maintaining the recommended ‘social distance’ is extremely difficult,” said Lindall. “There [is] no doubt that employees are growing more concerned as the incidence of COVID-19 in the prison system increases.”
Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the Department of Corrections has taken steps to control the spread, including taking the temperature of staff daily and placing facilities with known cases on lockdown, with extremely limited movement.
“Those who are incarcerated obviously live and work and eat and study and recreate all within that same environment, heightening the potential for COVID-19 to spread really quickly once it’s introduced,” Ezike said. “Our focus right now is ensuring that these incarcerated individuals receive the appropriate care that they deserve and need.”
Illinois advocates have been calling on the state to release prisoners, especially those who are sick or elderly. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker said his office has been reviewing the cases of low-level offenders for release and some have already been freed, including a few pregnant women. His office, however, has not provided total numbers of released prisoners.
Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.