Pritzker must act now to prevent coronavirus devastation behind bars in Illinois

Advocates ask the governor to take immediate steps to address the threat to elderly and infirm inmates in jail and prison, many of whom were subject to outdated punitive sentencing measures.

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Photo by Bill Healy

Gov. J.B. Pritzker should act quickly to review the cases of elderly and infirm inmates in jails and prisons and provide medical furloughs or compassionate release to “as many of them as possible” in order to prevent a devastating outbreak of coronavirus in the prison system, according to a letter initiated by a prison educators group and signed by over 1,500 educators and health professionals.

They point out that prisons “are known incubators and amplifiers of infectious disease.” According to other advocates arguing for immediate steps, an outbreak of coronavirus would “cripple an already broken [prison health] system” and result in deaths of elderly inmates, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Nearly 20% of Illinois Department of Corrections inmates are over 50, a number that has doubled since 2010. Many of them have been incarcerated for decades due to “tough-on-crime” legislation in the 1980s and ‘90s that abolished parole and restricted opportunities to earn time off for good behavior. Due to significant medical needs, the cost of incarceration for elderly inmates is estimated to be two to five times higher than the average, according to the Department of Justice

Nearly 1,000 Illinois inmates are aged 65 to 79, and 61 are over 80 years of age, according to a recent report by a court monitor — installed after Uptown People’s Law Office and the ACLU of Illinois filed a lawsuit charging the state prison health system is grossly underfunded and badly mismanaged.

According to the monitor, “Men and women with various types of dementia, cerebrovascular accidents, advanced cancers, cardiovascular disease, and increasing fragility with risk of falls are housed in many of the IDOC facilities.” Prison infirmaries “are becoming filled with patient-inmates” who “require assistance with the basic activities of daily living including dressing, feeding, bathing, and toileting.”

Advocates have long called for release of prisoners caught up in earlier punitive policies who pose little risk to public safety if released. Now the issue has become critical. “Were the coronavirus to infect a given prison population while simultaneously raging in the outside world and pressing hospitals to their limits—which is likely to be the case—the demographics of our state’s prisons means that deaths among incarcerated populations would be difficult to avoid,” the educators write.

The review and release needs to be done before the virus is introduced into prisons, they write.

The educators also call on the Illinois Prison Review Board to expedite the process of granting good-time credits. An Injustice Watch investigation in 2017 found the board operated with little public oversight and was reluctant to release prisoners who have shown extensive evidence of rehabilitation.

In addition, state’s attorneys should limit pretrial detention in jail to “extraordinary circumstances,” and should ensure no one is admitted to jail without testing for the virus.

Here’s an issue where compassion meets common sense. It will require some courage — and some human decency — by political leaders to meet the challenge.