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Prisoners in Illinois Describe Dire Conditions Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

It took a prisoner’s death ‘just for them to pass out a single extra bar of soap,’ one incarcerated man said.

Stateville Correctional Center.
(Photo by Rw2 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Prisoners in Illinois Describe Dire Conditions Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

It took a prisoner’s death ‘just for them to pass out a single extra bar of soap,’ one incarcerated man said.

Prisoners at Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center say that the facility has done little to address the spread of the novel coronavirus, and that a lack of supplies prevents them from protecting themselves.

On March 30, the state department of health announced the first death of a prisoner infected with COVID-19. The man, identified as Russell Sedelmaier by the Chicago Tribune, had been serving a life sentence at Stateville. Another Stateville prisoner with the virus died Sunday.

“It took Russell dying just for them to pass out a single extra bar of soap,” Joseph Dole, who is incarcerated at Stateville, wrote to The Appeal in a message received on Wednesday through the prison’s messaging system. “There are a lot of sick guys. …. Many have been sick for weeks.” 

As of Tuesday, 24 staff members and 95 prisoners from Stateville tested positive for COVID-19, representing more than 80 percent of cases in all Illinois prisons, according to the Department of Corrections website. Lab results are pending for 187 prisoners statewide. 

“We are all already ill!” Raúl Dorado, who is incarcerated at Stateville, wrote to The Appeal in a message received Wednesday. “Last night they passed out a disposable face mask,” wrote Dorado, who is a board member of the activist coalition Parole Illinois. “Talk about too little too late.” Staff members, however, are provided “a new mask each day, latex gloves, hand sanitizer and now surgical aprons, shoe covers, etc. We are not.” 

The only way to receive medical attention, he wrote, is “to become unresponsive (pass-out).” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends frequent handwashing, wearing a mask, and maintaining a distance of six feet from other people to protect yourself and others from the novel coronavirus, which spreads through respiratory droplets. But the lack of supplies makes it difficult to follow these guidelines.

Prisoners are provided with antibacterial soap, according to the Department of Corrections website, but no mention is made of protective equipment for prisoners. The website does state, however, that staff members are provided with personal protective equipment. 

Melly Rios, whose partner is incarcerated at Stateville, said the cleaning supplies he has received are inadequate to keep him or his cell clean. She asked that The Appeal use her nickname, Melly, to protect her privacy.

“About two or three days ago, he’s like, ‘We got one small bar of Dial soap, a face towel, and a hand towel,’” Rios said in a phone interview on Wednesday. To clean the cell, he told her, they’re given “watered down bleach and dirty rags.” 

“He’s been scrubbing down the cell,” said Rios. “He’s like, ‘I’m trying to keep it out of here.’ But it’s all around him.”

Last week, civil rights attorneys filed three cases, including a federal suit against Governor J.B. Pritzker and the state Department of Corrections director, demanding the release of prisoners who are vulnerable to complications from the virus. So far, about 450  people have been released, and Pritzker has ceased, with few exceptions, admissions to state prisons. The governor is also sending 30 medics from the National Guard to Stateville, the Sun-Times reported

But much more needs to be done—urgently, said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center and one of the attorneys involved in the federal suit.

“The crisis and the disease is spreading much faster than they’re letting people out,” said Mills. “They’re letting out people by the ones and twos and I think they should be talking about letting people out by the thousands.”

Stateville and seven other prisons in Illinois are on “full lockdown,” according to the Department of Corrections, “which means there is no movement around the facility except for medical care.” 

Advocates say the quarantine measures are further isolating prisoners, harming their mental health.

“We have been stuck in our cells with no exercise, fresh air, etc. for going on two weeks,” Dole, policy director of Parole Illinois, wrote to The Appeal. “Test the entire prison population and if everyone is positive for it then take us off lockdown.” Mass testing would allow them to separate those who are negative from those who are positive, he said. “They don’t know who actually has what,” he wrote.

Lindsey Hess, a state Department of Corrections spokesperson, told The Appeal in an email, “Physical activity is limited, but IDOC’s Leisure Time Specialists are providing activities men and women can participate in on their housing units.”

Since the lockdown began, prisoners have reported that individual therapy and group therapy have ceased, according to Mills. Hess told The Appeal that mental health services are still being provided to people on lockdown. 

“It causes severe damage to your mental health to be locked away that way,” said Mills. “People who are mentally ill are absolutely deteriorating and other people are beginning to deteriorate who aren’t mentally ill.”

Prisoners’ contact with their loved ones on the outside has been severely restricted. On March 14, the Department of Corrections suspended in-person visits. The department is providing funds for prisoners to make two 20-minute phone calls and one 15-minute video call, according to its website. 

Starting on March 20 and continuing for 12 weeks, prisoners were to receive a weekly video call up to 15 minutes, provided at no charge by the department’s communications provider Global Tel Link Corporation (GTL). Beginning on March 24, GTL was also expected to give prisoners four free message vouchers to use on its online messaging service—similar to email except parties have to pay to send messages.

But Dole says the Department of Corrections, “falsely claims that maintaining contact with our families is a priority.”  In addition to the already limited contact they’ve been permitted since the lockdown, video calls have been arbitrarily canceled, Dole said in his message to The Appeal. 

When video or audio calls are available, people risk spreading the virus to others or exposing themselves because the equipment is shared, according to prisoners’ rights advocates. “A small number of facilities do pass the phone from cell to cell,” Hess wrote to The Appeal. “The phone is disinfected between each use.”

These unnecessary risks could be avoided, and more communication could be permitted, if the Department of Corrections allowed prisoners to make calls on their tablets, said Rios. Enabling tablets to make calls would be a “godsend,” she said. 

The tablets are not capable of making audio or video calls at this time, but do have the capability of sending and receiving emails,” wrote Hess.

On Friday, Rios attended a prayer vigil outside St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, where 17 prisoners from Stateville were admitted on March 30, according to WLS-TV, the local ABC affiliate. “This is a disaster,” John Walsh, the hospital medical director, told WLS. “What I most fear is that without some resolution, the number of patients coming in from Stateville will be excessive.” 

The vigil’s participants hoped to demonstrate their support for those whose lives have been upended by COVID-19: healthcare workers, as well as incarcerated patients and those living in the community.

“Everybody’s world stopped in the blink of an eye,” said Rios. Speaking about people incarcerated at Stateville, she continued: “Their world was already stopped when they got sentenced. Now it’s really—it’s done for them.”