An outbreak of COVID-19 at a suburban Illinois prison could strain the hospital system of the surrounding community and wreak havoc on the state’s interconnected corrections system, experts warn.
Though it will take several days to screen service members, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday he would deploy 30 medics from the Illinois Army National Guard’s to the Stateville Correctional Center, located 30 miles from Chicago, which has had one inmate death from COVID-19.
The medics were slated to arrive by the “end of the week,” and will be setting up medical tents, triaging and providing medical care for the inmates, Gov. JB Pritzker’s office told the Chicago Sun-Times.
The facility had more than 4,100 inmates as of January 2020 and has 49 inmates and 17 staff members who have tested positive for the virus as of Friday. Throughout Illinois’ prison system, which houses nearly 40,000 inmates, there have been 53 inmates and 27 staff members who have tested positive. Another 187 tests are still pending, according to numbers from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
“Our response to COVID-19 continues to be deliberate and aggressive. We are taking vigorous steps to protect our staff and men and women in custody from this disease, including thoroughly reviewing those who are eligible for early release, appropriately quarantining or isolating men and women in custody, and equipping staff with personal protective equipment,” a department spokesperson said in a statement Friday.
In response to a FOIA request from The Chicago Reporter, the Department of Corrections provided copies of memos showing escalating concerns about coronavirus in early March, but refused to release the agency’s pandemic plan response plan citing security concerns.
“Records that relate to or affect the security of correctional institutions and detention facilities” are exempt from Freedom of Information Act disclosure, the agency said.
The department suspended visitation to all facilities on March 14 and a week later all facilities were put on quarantine, where movement was restricted. Any facility with a confirmed case is being placed on lockdown where the only movement allowed is for emergency medical situations.
Across the nation, inmates at jails and prisons are considered particularly vulnerable to the virus. In New York City jails, there are mounting fears of a public health catastrophe where at least 167 inmates and 137 staff members have tested positive for the virus at Rikers Island, according to the New York Times.
The number of coronavirus cases has also exploded at Cook County Jail, one of the largest jails in the country, in the last few weeks. As of Friday, 167 detainees and 46 correctional staff members had tested positive for the virus, according to Injustice Watch’s tracker for the facility and reporting from the Chicago Sun-Times.
The first two cases of COVID-19 at Cook County Jail occurred on March 23, according to the Sun-Times.
Nurses are also sounding the alarm, warning state and healthcare officials that the outbreak will strain the supply of personal protective equipment at hospitals near Stateville. Alice Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association, said they already have concerns over rationing of the equipment at AMITA Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Joliet.
Earlier this week, the hospital was treating all inmates with COVID-19, eight of which were on ventilators. An emergency room physician described the hospital as a “war zone,” according to WJOL.
“Nurses have been instructed to re-use their masks for their entire shift or until they lose integrity,” Johnson said in a statement Wednesday. “A shortage of personal protective equipment and ventilators at St. Joseph’s and surrounding hospitals puts additional pressure on nurses and health care workers and providing them adequate protection is essential.”
Along with equipment, there’s also not enough staff to handle the patients.
“There are not enough nurses in the ER, ICU and the COVID-19 unit,” Pat Meade, a registered nurse at the hospital, said in a press release. “Runners are needed to assist the nurse because we can’t leave the critical patients.”
The situation has also caught the attention of civil rights groups who are now suing the state of Illinois to force the release of vulnerable inmates, according to WBEZ.
“Stateville’s reality might have been avoided if the governor and [the Illinois Department of Corrections] had acted with the urgency and scope required to mitigate the oncoming harm,” reads the lawsuit filed by multiple groups including Uptown People’s Law Center and the law firm Loevy and Loevy.
“Instead, IDOC has continued to house thousands of elderly, disabled, and medically vulnerable prisoners who could be released, many of whom are approaching their release dates and have homes in which they could more safely quarantine.”
Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, is in constant contact with families of prisoners and described the situation at Stateville as a “disaster.”
“At this point, it’s spread through a significant part of the population … We’ve seen already as a result of how widespread it is at Stateville that the local hospital was overwhelmed,” said Mills.
While Stateville prison has seen the worst outbreak, Mills was also concerned with Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois, where an employee tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. An outbreak in the small town would likely overwhelm the county, he said.
“This is very concerning as to how this is going to spread through the more rural prisons. Stateville has the advantage of being in a relatively large city Joliet and quite close to Chicago so there’s lots of medical stuff available. But when you go downstate, south of Springfield, it’s both both a medical desert and where most of our prisoners are,” he said.
The Southern Illinois prison had a population of about 1,800 prisoners in 2019. Randolph County, where the prison is located, hasn’t had any COVID-19 related deaths, but has 12 confirmed cases, according to the Chicago Reporter’s tracker.