Prisons Lagging in COVID-19 Response

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Sometimes, Deonta could hear inmates sick with COVID-19 screaming for help from his cell, said his loved one Chrisoula Drivas. 

“The officers would kind of disregard people, so he said it was crazy to hear that people were desperate and no one cared,” she said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, advocates like Drivas have raised concerns about inadequate cleaning supplies, unsanitary conditions and a lack of consistent COVID-19 protocols in Illinois Department of Corrections facilities. These are challenges Deonta faced firsthand, she said.

In November, one of Deonta’s three cellmates at Dixon Correctional Center tested positive for COVID-19. Though this man was moved to another area to quarantine, the other three were not immediately tested, she said.

“During this time, their working, cleaning, interacting with people knowing their cellmate tested positive,” Drivas said, noting this is how the virus “spread like wildfire” at IDOC facilities. 

Renaldo Hudson remembers when things got really bad. He’s the education director at the IL Prison Project. Hudson was granted clemency in September 2020 after spending 37 years at multiple IDOC facilities.

After the virus made its way to Danville Correctional Center, he said it led to more fights among cellmates. A coughing cellmate would put him and others on edge. And there was a lack of information about how the virus spread, he said. That’s why being in prison during the pandemic was “one of the scariest experiences,” he said. 

It reminded him of “sitting on death row, waiting to be executed,” he said. 

Prisons in Illinois and around the country have been recognized as COVID-19 hotspots.

There are 29,224 inmates in IDOC facilities, according to an IDOC factsheet dated Dec. 2020. 54.3% are Black. 31.7% are white. 13.1% are Latino, and other ethnic groups make up the balance.

Approximately 32% of the entire IDOC population has tested positive for COVID-19 compared to approximately 9% of the Illinois civilian population. This is according to a report from an independent court-appointed monitor. The monitor was tasked with creating reports about IDOC’s health programs. It all resulted from a class action lawsuit brought by ACLU of Illinois, Uptown People’s Law Center, and Dentons. This lawsuit, Lippert v. Jeffreys, was settled in 2019, and alleged that the health care provided to prisoners by IDOC is unconstitutional.

The pandemic “exposed critical weaknesses” in IDOC’s health program, including nurse staffing deficiencies, infection control staffing deficiencies, and an absence of experience in managing infectious outbreak, according to the monitor’s March 19 report.

As of Monday March 22, there are 62 offenders and 89 staff members who  have the virus, according to the IDOC website. 

Other information found on the site shows IDOC facilities began to implement testing strategies and outbreak mitigation in December 2020 and began to vaccinate staff and inmates in February. So far, 3,733 staff and 17,637 individuals in custody have been vaccinated, according to Lindsey Hess, IDOC public information officer. First doses have been offered to all staff and individuals in custody..

But some conditions advocates raised concerns about in the early months of the pandemic have not improved, according to Drivas and other members of the End IL Prison Coalition.

At a March 12 news conference, the coalition called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign more clemency petitions and for the IDOC to end prison lockdowns and restore prison visits with safety guidelines.

“Though people I love in (IDOC) have now received their first dose of the vaccine, conditions have gotten no better,” said coalition member Wilson Bretz in a press release. “While some prisons downstate have ended their lockdowns, my friends in Statesville are still on lockdown 23 hours a day. Even with the vaccine, IDOC is implementing inconsistent steps towards easing the lockdowns.”

While incarcerated individuals in Dixon are now able to walk to chow, commissary, the barbershop and go outside for yard time, the 23 hours a day lockdowns continue, Drivas said.

Drivas said these lockdowns make it difficult for inmates to reach out to family and get the items they need.

“If they’re locked up for 23 hours, they’re usually getting two, 30-minute breaks outside of the cell and in 30 minutes you have to decide ‘am I going to take a shower or am I going to make a phone call?’” Drivas said.

Kim Henry hasn’t been able to spend time with her incarcerated love one, Von Jones, in a year.

He is serving a natural life sentence at Menard Correctional Center. When the two do talk, they do so on the phone for 20 minutes or on video for 15 minutes. This has been their new normal, after the IDOC suspended in-person visits to prevent the potential exposure for COVID-19 in March 2020. Henry remembers when she could enjoy two to four-hour-long visits with him. She feels these visits “humanize” him and the other inmates.

“It gave them an opportunity to have something different and kind of escape from their surroundings for a couple hours and they haven’t had that in a year,” Henry said.

Now, Jones and Henry’s conversations are often interrupted by audio, internet and other technical issues. This challenge paired with the inability to purchase commissary items like soap and cleaning supplies as often due to new restrictions and limitations have left many, including Jones, in despair.

“Tensions are high in there,” Henry said.

With declining COVID-19 cases in facilities and the availability of the vaccine, IDOC is “hopeful visits can resume shortly,” Hess said.

“We have been working for weeks on a detailed plan to resume in-person visits in the safest manner possible, including consultation with IDPH,” she continued. “We are finalizing that plan and will be releasing those plans in the coming days.”

The pandemic has highlighted the need for compassionate release for inmates with serious medical conditions and advanced age, according to the American Medical Association.

To that end, multiple lawsuits have been filed, including a May 2020 amended complaint, Richard v. Pritzker. As a result of a settlement in this case, the state will look to improve IDOC’s use of available release options for prisoners, especially for medically vulnerable and elderly people. More than 1,000 people will be freed from IDOC’s custody as a result of the agreement.

But despite some progress, Henry fears there are still challenges ahead for incarcerated individuals like Jones.

“(Von) didn’t really want to take the vaccine but they told him if he didn’t, then he wouldn’t get any visits and that would mean video visits as well as phone visits,” Henry said.

Pablo Mendoza, who was released from Lawrence Correctional Center in October, said inmates have felt pressured to receive the vaccine since many correctional officers have not.

According to Hess, staff who don’t follow the department’s COVID-19 mitigation measures are subject to discipline.

But during Mendoza’s year-long-bid, he said correctional staff didn’t take the virus seriously, not wearing masks, proper protective equipment or following COVID-19 protocols. This is part of a “cultural issue” in the IDOC.

“There’s a culture of dismissiveness colored by preconceived biases. That still continues and will do so unless addressed,” Mendoza said.

While there is still room for improvement, Hudson feels the IDOC is making a better effort to educate the prison population and staff about COVID-19 and vaccinations. And though there wasn’t a universal policy in how facilities addressed the pandemic, some wardens were more progressive in responding than others, he said.

At the IL Prison Project, part of his job includes creating presentations for the prison population and working with IDOC personnel. He believes all interested parties must work together to keep everyone safe.

“The only way we’re going to beat this monstrous virus is as a collective effort,” he said. “It’s not going to be won if we continue to sling mud at each other.”