Pritzker Vows Support For Prison Death Transparency, Despite Previous Opposition

Menard prison
Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Ill. In September 2018, three men died over three days at Menard, raising questions about transparency and staff accountability in state prisons. Joseph Shapiro / NPR
Menard prison
Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Ill. In September 2018, three men died over three days at Menard, raising questions about transparency and staff accountability in state prisons. Joseph Shapiro / NPR

Pritzker Vows Support For Prison Death Transparency, Despite Previous Opposition

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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker says his administration is committed to passing legislation that will promote transparency around prison deaths, even though the Illinois Department of Corrections under him opposed legislation in the spring that would have done just that. His office refuses to detail what concerns the administration had with that legislation or what fixes it would like to see included in any proposed bill, saying only that the office had “logistical concerns with the measure as written.”

The legislative effort to shine light on deaths in custody comes after years of secrecy around prison deaths and multiple investigations by WBEZ, as well as an independent investigation by a court-appointed medical expert that found preventable deaths routinely occurred in Illinois’ prison system.

Pritzker’s administration successfully opposed a bill last session that would have forced the Department of Corrections to report information about prison deaths to the Illinois attorney general and provide information to families. But in a written statement in September, the governor vowed support for future legislation saying, “the administration is broadly open to this effort and is committed to working with the sponsors in the next session to adopt legislation that will promote transparency.”

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, said the information currently available on prison deaths, which only lists deaths by facility and categorizes them as “expected” or “unexpected,” is unacceptable.

“Knowing about injuries and deaths that occur inside our prisons is critical to understanding and monitoring the administration of medical care, institutional safety, and abuse and neglect of injured and sick prisoners,” Vollen-Katz said. “This information provides a critical window into how prisoners are treated and must be made publicly available so that the public can hold the department accountable for the safety and well-being, physically and emotionally, of the people in its custody.”

Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, which opposed the death transparency bill, said jails are already required to provide information to both the Department of Justice and the state Department of Corrections.

“Most jails have limited resources already, and we traditionally oppose any mandate,” Kaitschuk said.

Menard deaths connected to falsified documents

Recent Illinois prison deaths point toward a lack of accountability in current systems for investigating the deaths and a lack of information for both the public and families.

A WBEZ investigation into deaths in custody found a cluster where prison staff ignored warning signs connected to three men who died on three consecutive days at Menard prison. But an internal investigation by the Department of Corrections largely absolved staff of wrongdoing, and a correctional officer who admitted to falsifying documents in the incident remains employed.

Kevin Curtis, 31, was the first to die in that cluster on Sept. 5, 2018. According to records, a prison staff member said he looked “catatonic” and was severely dehydrated, but staff doctors ignored her concerns and he died shortly after.

Curtis was also on suicide watch, which meant a guard was supposed to check in on him every 10 minutes. However, the guard in charge of doing those checks, Correctional Officer Nickolas Mitchell, told investigators that he had not actually done all his checks because he was helping with meals. Mitchell said after Curtis’ death, he falsified his report log to make it look like he had done the required checks. Mitchell remains on staff at the department.

A coroner determined that Curtis died of “probable intoxication with an unknown substance.”

The next day, Edwin Freeman, 45, died from the same cause. He was housed in the cell next to Curtis’ cell and was also on suicide watch.

In a letter forwarded to WBEZ, a prisoner claims that prior to their deaths, he heard someone screaming that they were hot and could not breathe.

Twenty-four hours after Freeman died, Timothy Murray, a third prisoner in a cell nearby, also died from probable intoxication with an unknown substance.

According to documents from the investigation by the Department of Corrections into Murray’s death, one prisoner said he could hear him banging on his cell door for help after the morning meal. However, security staff did not come until the afternoon meal was distributed. Murray was just days shy of his 33rd birthday when he was found unresponsive in his cell.

A pattern of poor transparency and record keeping

At least 166 people died while in Illinois prisons from January 2017 to September 2018. In around half of those cases, IDOC’s research department had no cause of death listed, according to documents from the Department of Corrections. The department said individual prisons may have more details. But when WBEZ followed up with another records request, the department claimed that for some prison deaths, it didn’t have even basic records like death certificates or death reports.

Families of prisoners say they have a hard time getting even basic information about the circumstances of their loved one’s death.

Sheila Fane’s son Desmond Fane died at age 30 inside the Department of Corrections. Her nephew Earl Fane, who she raised like a son, also died in an Illinois prison about a year later at age 26. She said the prisons gave her very little explanation about what led to their deaths.

“Not having the information is like not having a closure,” she said.

WBEZ was able to confirm Desmond Fane died after a series of medical errors made by prison staff. An independent medical expert identified 10 errors and determined that his death was preventable.

The medical expert reviewed Fane’s death, and others, as part of court proceedings in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Illinois and the Uptown People’s Law Center over poor medical treatment in Illinois prisons.

After hearing the details around her son’s death, Sheila Fane said, “he didn’t have a death sentence, but in the long run, they gave him the death sentence.”

Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter at WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.