Illinois prisons — and rural healthcare systems — facing crisis due to slow COVID-19 response

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s failure to release vulnerable prisoners from overcrowded facilities will cost avoidable loss of life behind bars and in surrounding communities, say advocates and medical professionals.

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Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.

In some quarters, President Donald Trump’s hesitant and bumbled response to the coronavirus crisis is being blamed for deaths that are now mounting into the thousands, and likely to go much higher.

Let’s hope the same won’t be said of Gov. J.B. Pritzker a few weeks from now. Let’s hope he won’t be blamed for hundreds of deaths, or more, among Illinois prisoners and guards — and the continuing spread of the virus — due to his hesitancy in the early weeks of the crisis.

In response to calls for the release of vulnerable prisoners from overcrowded prisons, Pritzker this week announced that 300 prisoners have been released from Illinois Department of Corrections facilities.

But that’s roughly the average number of prisoners released from the prison system every week because they’ve served their sentences, said Alan Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which has led several class-action lawsuits against the prison system. “IDOC has not been transparent at all about the criteria for release,” he said.

“We’ve been asking what their plan is and getting essentially nothing,” Patrice James, director of community justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, said of conversations with the governor’s office and IDOC.

Three lawsuits challenging the state’s failure to release more prisoners — warning that without court intervention, “people are going to die unnecessarily” — were filed by civil rights attorneys (including UPLC) on Thursday. Though attorneys asked for an immediate hearing, U.S. District Judge Robert Dow suggested a possible April 10 hearing.

Mills said there are well more than 10,000 prisoners who could be released immediately under current law, including the oldest and most vulnerable. That includes 5,300 who will be released within six months and who could be awarded 180 days of good time credit. It includes about 700 inmates who are over 55 and within one year of their release and several thousand inmates with low-level felonies who could be immediately released to home confinement, and an unknown number of medically vulnerable inmates who could be given medical furloughs.

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That would reduce the overcrowding that makes prisons a proverbial “petri dish” for the virus — “combin[ing] the worst aspects of cruise ships and nursing homes,” according to a letter to the governor from doctors and public health experts — and it would help protect inmates whose lives are most threatened by the pandemic.

Other states, including California, New York, and New Jersey, are moving much more quickly to release prisoners, according to both Mills and James.

Jennifer Soble of the Illinois Prison Project points out that in normal times, 1,700 inmates are taken to medical centers outside Illinois prisons every month for treatment for chronic health conditions, including chemotherapy and dialysis, and an average of 200 inmates each month are hospitalized outside their facilities.

Illinois has a disproportionately older prison population compared to many other states because of harsh sentencing measures passed in past decades, Soble said. And numerous studies have shown that the state’s prison population has significantly higher rates of chronic health issues than the general public, said Sage Kim, associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Kim was one of 25 health and criminal justice experts who signed an open letter warning of the possibility of a “public health disaster” in the state’s prisons and jails.

“We need to act very quickly,” Kim said. “In prisons and jails, once [the virus] gets out of hand, it’s very difficult to control.” She noted that the number of confirmed cases inside IDOC has doubled over the past three days, and that limited testing means there are certainly far more infections inside the system.

On Wednesday, Pritzer’s office said there were a total of 48 confirmed COVID-19 cases at Stateville Correctional Center, an increase of 16 over the previous day. IDOC has so far reported confirmed cases at seven of its facilities, according to the Sun-Times.

Dr. John Walsh, medical director at AMITA Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, estimated that 15 Stateville inmates were admitted to St. Joseph’s over the last week, and said eight were on ventilators and one has died, according to the Joliet Herald-News. The virus is also spreading in the community, and most of the hospital’s intensive care units and ventilators are in use. “We are reaching the breaking point,” Walsh told the newspaper.

“Stateville is a maximum security prison,” Mills said. “At minimum security facilities you have people living in dorms with 20 beds, two feet apart. If one person gets it, there’s no way it’s not going to spread through a prison dorm. And it’s coming.”

Pritzker said prisoners considered for release are being vetted to make sure that they have no history of violence.

But many of the oldest and sickest inmates — those most vulnerable to the virus — have indeed been convicted of violent crimes, in many cases committed decades ago. But they are also among those least likely to reoffend, James said.

“If thousands of people in IDOC die of the virus who could otherwise have been saved, if hospitals and intensive care units in rural communities [where prisons are located] are filled with prisoners and people in the community die because they can’t get an ICU bed, that’s not a hypothetical risk, that’s a real risk,” said Mills.

“I’m terrified about what [the state’s delay] means for incarcerated people, what it means for prison staff, what it means for our health care system,” said James. “We can do something now. To have the number of cases in the system skyrocket all of a sudden two weeks from now, that will be a tragic result — and we can’t say that we didn’t expect that to happen.”