After serving 10 years in prison for criminal sexual assault, Marcus Barnes was counting down the days until his release date on Dec. 17, 2018.
He was planning on spending the holidays with his family and reconnecting with his daughter, who had recently graduated from high school and had started communicating with him again.
“With me being absent, she was a little resentful in the beginning, which I understand,” he said. “I worked really hard to really let her know that I love her.”
But when his release date finally arrived, he was told that the Chicago apartment he was planning on moving to was too close to a home day care facility. It would be a violation of housing restrictions imposed on him as a person on the sex offender registry, and, therefore, he would remain in prison.
“I kinda braced because my body just couldn’t move for a second,” said Barnes.
Barnes’ family scrambled to find alternatives. They say they found 11 different housing options for him, only to have each of them rejected by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). And so, 16 months after his original release date, he was still at Graham Correctional Center when a guard there tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was a little terrified,” said Barnes. “I was trying to act like it was OK, but I was a little nervous.”
Barnes was one of an estimated 1,200 people who are kept behind bars in Illinois every year even though they’ve completed their sentences. It’s a problem under normal circumstances, but with COVID-19 spreading in prisons across the country and the state, it’s taken on new urgency.
Many people convicted of sex offenses are subject to a web of housing restrictions upon their release. According to Illinois law, some cannot live within 500 feet of a playground, school or child care facility. Given the prevalence of parks and home day cares in Chicago, the laws put much of the city’s affordable housing stock out of reach.
“Many of these people have safe and welcoming housing to go to outside of IDOC,” said Adele Nicholas, a civil rights attorney who has filed multiple cases against the state over this issue. “But the Illinois laws are so restrictive and impose so many hurdles to getting housing approved that IDOC won’t let these people go home even though they’re done with their sentences and are entitled to be released.”
Now, a coalition of 50 local and national criminal justice reform organizations, led by the Chicago 400 Alliance, is calling on Gov. JB Pritzker to ease conviction-based housing restrictions for the duration of the pandemic. The move would allow people who have completed their sentences to finally leave prison.
“We’ve been working on this issue for years,” said alliance coordinator Laurie Jo Reynolds, “but now it’s a matter of life and death.”
She is hoping the governor will issue an executive order.
A spokesperson for IDOC told WBEZ that in holding people beyond the ends of their sentences, the department is simply trying to keep people safe and following rules laid out by the legislature.
That’s why state Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Frankfort, would like to change those laws. Before the COVID -19 pandemic shut down the General Assembly in early March, McDermed was in the final stages of preparing a bill that would have eased Illinois’ housing restrictions for people on the sex offender registry. The pandemic added urgency to her effort.
“Here’s a group that should be out already, and so why don’t we see what we can do about that?” she said.
McDermed said she reached out to both Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, but the conversations went nowhere. And she thinks the pandemic has put her legislation on the backburner for the time being, despite the urgency.
“The state’s going to have to do something about these people because they can’t be in prison forever,” she said.
Pritzker and Stratton did not respond to inquiries from WBEZ about the issue.
Meanwhile, Nicholas and her team have taken the matter to the courts. In late March, she filed a lawsuit against IDOC on Barnes’ behalf, arguing that the global pandemic poses “an acute risk to the health and safety of imprisoned persons” and is therefore in violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.
A federal judge ruled in Barnes’ favor, ordering his release. Since then, Nicholas and her team have won release orders for an additional 32 people.
Meanwhile, inside Illinois prisons, as of last week, at least 13 inmates had died after testing positive for COVID-19 according to IDOC. An additional 197 staff members and 324 inmates had tested positive according to department data, though that is likely a vast undercount because the state hasn’t been doing much testing inside prisons.
“I get calls from worried spouses and mothers and fathers and siblings every day,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas said her piecemeal legal approach isn’t enough. Hundreds of inmates past their release dates are still vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.