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Admissions to Illinois State Prisons Suspended, With Few Exceptions, Due to Coronavirus

Prisoners are “especially vulnerable to contracting and spreading COVID-19,” Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker wrote in his executive order.

J.B. Pritzker in 2018.
(Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Admissions to Illinois State Prisons Suspended, With Few Exceptions, Due to Coronavirus

Prisoners are “especially vulnerable to contracting and spreading COVID-19,” Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker wrote in his executive order.


Yesterday, Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker issued an executive order suspending, with few exceptions, admissions to state prisons from county jails, in an effort to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Seven incarcerated people and six staff are confirmed to have COVID-19, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Results are pending for 30 tests provided to prisoners. 

“The vast majority of [state prisoners], because of their close proximity and contact with each other in housing units and dining halls, are especially vulnerable to contracting and spreading COVID-19,” the executive order said. The order, which took effect yesterday, will remain in place during the Gubernatorial Disaster Proclamation, which extends through April 7.

The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association condemned the governor’s order, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The association, the governor’s office, and the department of corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

“We’re on the front lines and local Sheriffs need to be able to safely and securely transfer healthy inmates out of their facility to a state correctional center to mitigate risk, prevent overcrowding and slow or minimize the spread within the correctional system,” Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said in a statement, according to the Sun-Times.

But reducing the number of people incarcerated—in both prisons and jails—is necessary to curb transmission, public health experts and human rights activists say. More than 37,000 people are incarcerated in Illinois state prisons, according to the executive order. 

“The real problem is there’s too many people incarcerated. Too many people in the Department of Corrections. Too many people in the county jails,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. “People need to go home. It doesn’t do us any good to shuffle people from one institution to another and therefore move the virus around.”

Last week, several Illinois-based civil rights organizations sent a letter to the governor, urging him to both curtail admissions to state prisons and to immediately free those who are scheduled to be released within 120 days.

“These individuals are held in close quarters—several feet closer than the six-foot distance that you and the CDC have recommended for individuals not held in custody,” reads the letter. “As a result, if any one of these individuals becomes infected with COVID-19, nearly everyone within the prison will face a dangerously high risk of becoming infected.”

The signatories also asked the governor to release those held on nonviolent parole violations and prisoners with what they describe as viable clemency petitions. They called for prisoners who are pregnant, postpartum, or living with their infants to be evaluated for early release, the majority of whom are scheduled for release within a year, according to the letter. 

Prisoners with health conditions and the elderly should be reviewed for release as well, the signatories wrote. As of August 2019, almost 1,000 people incarcerated in Illinois prisons were between 65 and 79 years old, according to a report by the court-appointed monitor of the state’s prison healthcare systems. Sixty-one were older than 80.

“The infirmaries are becoming filled with patient-inmates who are confused, incontinent, and require assistance with the basic activities of daily living including dressing, feeding, bathing, and toileting,” the monitor wrote. 

This week, the Sun-Times reported that, according to a spokesperson for the governor, the governor’s office and the department of corrections plan to “prioritize the release of older or vulnerable residents while ensuring public safety by thoroughly reviewing each resident’s activities before and during their stay at an IDOC [Illinois Department of Corrections] facility.”

Preventing transmission of COVID-19 relies on social distancing and frequent handwashing. But not only do Illinois prisoners live with hundreds of others in close quarters, they also have limited access to hygiene supplies, according to news reports. Several groups, including the Northwestern Prison Education Program and the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, have taken to fundraising to buy the most basic hygiene supplies for people in prison. “We have been informed that Stateville will accept any donations we can make to help keep those in its custody safe,” reads a post from the Northwestern group’s Facebook page. “They are in need of hand sanitizer, bars of soap, cleaning wipes, etc.” 

So far, the Northwestern Prison Education Program has raised more than $5,000 which they used to buy 7,600 bars of soap, 1,200 face masks, and 1,000 individual hand sanitizers, according to Anne d’Aquino, the group’s director of operations. A number of items have been donated as well, including 510 cough drops, 12 boxes of tissues, eight paper towel rolls, and 43 bars of soap, d’Aquino said

“Incarcerated people are still part of our community,” she said. “On a public health level, on a community level, this community is part of flattening the curve.”

Those who fall ill inside the state’s prisons are at risk of receiving inadequate medical care, warns Mills. Uptown People’s Law Center and others filed a class action lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2013 over its medical and dental care. Last year, a settlement was reached; as part of the agreement, a court-approved monitor is tasked with ensuring reforms are implemented. 

“This is a system that was not working well under the best of conditions when there wasn’t a crisis,” said Mills. 

Prior to the settlement agreement, a court-appointed expert reviewed 33 out of 174 deaths that occurred in 2016 and 2017. Nineteen were “preventable or possibly preventable.” Medical errors in these cases, the monitor wrote, were “so egregious that it would typically result in a peer review for possible reduction of privileges or referral to licensing boards for evaluation of sanction of their license.” 

In one instance, a guard saw a 24-year-old man, who suffered from mental illness, ingest two sporks. About two and half months later, the man told a nurse practitioner that he needed the sporks removed. By then he had lost more than 30 pounds. 

“The patient remained untreated and eventually lost 54 pounds and had repeated episodes of abdominal pain with an inability to eat without pain, nausea, and diarrhea,” the expert wrote.

In October 2017, he was found unresponsive and sent to the hospital, where he died, according to the expert’s report. His cause of death was esophageal perforation, caused by the swallowed sporks. In another instance detailed in the expert’s report, a prisoner went years without being diagnosed with HIV, even as his health deteriorated. By the time he died, he was severely malnourished and his body was covered in pustular lesions. 

“Here you have a dysfunctional system that is about to face the exact same pressures that the top institutions in the country are falling apart as a result of,” said Mills. “That’s yet another reason why you just have to get people out of the prison system. This medical system simply is not able to deal with this level of crisis.”