Illinois Gov. JB Pritzer is refusing to say if he would support a bill that would require transparency around prison deaths after a WBEZ investigation found prison staff ignored warning signs and falsified documents connected to three men who died on three consecutive days at Menard prison. An internal investigation by the Department of Corrections largely absolved staff of wrongdoing, and a correctional officer who admitted to falsifying documents remains employed.
Family members say they were given very little information about the deaths of their loved ones at Menard. A bill that would have required jails and prisons to provide family members and the Illinois attorney general with information about prison deaths recently failed to pass the state legislature, but lawmakers and advocates say they plan to try and pass a similar bill soon.
“We absolutely need better reporting standards for our deaths in custody,” said Democratic Illinois state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray. “Given the limitations of current data, including missing critical information, it’s clear more transparency is needed to identify stronger prevention policies.”
Pritzker said his office is reviewing practices regarding death investigations.
“The governor’s office is working with [the Department of Corrections] and [Illinois State Police] to evaluate practices regarding investigations and ensure those practices are as strong and effective as possible,” wrote a spokesperson in an email.
But the governor’s office refused to answer questions about whether he supported the prison death reporting bill submitted last session and what changes, if any, he thought needed to be made.
At least 166 people died while in Illinois prisons from January 2017 to September 2018, according to records obtained by WBEZ. In around half of those cases, IDOC’s research department had no cause of death listed. When WBEZ requested records on specific deaths, the department claimed that in some cases, it didn’t have even basic information like death certificates or death reports.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the prison watchdog John Howard Association, said the lack of transparency makes it easier for prisons to cover up wrongdoing.
“When we hear in the news, stories about people who have died in prison, in horrible circumstances, it's impossible to find out exactly what happened. And everything about that is wrong. It’s wrong at a humanitarian level, and it’s wrong at a policy level,” Vollen-Katz said.
Limited resources and extra work
The Illinois Department of Corrections and the Illinois Sheriffs' Association both opposed the bill last session.
“Most jails have limited resources already, and we traditionally oppose any mandate,” said Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association.
Kaitschuk said jails are currently required to provide information to both the Department of Justice and the State Department of Corrections.
The Illinois Department of Corrections did not answer questions about its opposition to the bill.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.