As COVID-19 spreads in state prisons, Austin residents worry for loved ones

Rep. Ford, activists and residents urge Gov. Pritzker to release inmates, establish quarantine measures

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Austin resident Classie Terrell, 71, is worried. Her 50-year-old son is incarcerated at Sheridan Correctional Center and her 32-year-old great-nephew is incarcerated at Menard Correctional Center. Both, Terrell said, have complained of feeling sick within the last several months. 

"My great-nephew said he's been sick with the flu and had been throwing up. He hadn't been able to eat. They gave him a test and put him in a one-person cell," Terrell said during an interview last week. 

"I was concerned about my son in December," she said. "At the time, he said he had a cold. I talked to [Rep. La Shawn K. Ford] about my son getting early release, because he is eligible for work release. I had not heard about the virus at the time. I was just concerned about his cold and what happens when you're sick in there." 

Terrell is one of many concerned relatives, activists and lawmakers who want incarcerated individuals released due to the spread of COVID-19 in Illinois prisons, which they say are ill-equipped and underprepared to handle sick inmates in normal circumstances — let alone hundreds of prisoners infected with a highly contagious and deadly virus. 

"The Department of Corrections clearly doesn't have the healthcare capacity to take care of individuals with severe illness," said Ford (D-8th), whose district spans most of Austin and into the near west suburbs. Ford regularly takes constituents on trips to state prisons. Terrell said she reached out to Ford about her son. 

"We know that the conditions you live in can impact your quality of life and health, and it's been on record that our prisons are old and deteriorating," Ford said last week. "The facilities have mold, asbestos, lead, rodents — all of that. And if you're an inmate at a prison, it's highly likely that if you are exposed to an infected person, you're going to get it, because it's very difficult to practice social distancing. It's like impossible. That alone is a recipe for disaster." 

As of April 3, the Illinois Department of Corrections has reported 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staffers and 53 among inmates. The results of 187 tests are still pending. 

The most confirmed cases have been reported at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security state prison in Joliet that houses roughly 1,500 inmates. The prison has 17 confirmed cases among staffers and 49 among inmates. On March 30, Department of Corrections officials reported that the first incarcerated individual to die from COVID-19 in Illinois was held at Stateville. 

State prison officials have said they've taken various measures to manage the spread of COVID-19, including putting a halt to visits; quarantining sick inmates; and placing all facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19 on lockdown, which prohibits any movement in the facility except for medical care. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker also issued an executive order suspending all admissions to the state's prisons and commuting the sentences of pregnant women, women with babies, retail shoplifters and individuals in prison on narcotics charges. 

"We had more than 1,000 fewer prisoners in prison today than we had on Feb. 1," the governor said during an April 2 press briefing, according to Capitol News Illinois. 

But those measures aren't enough for Ford, Terrell and others who are concerned that COVID-19's quiet spread throughout the state's prison system can claim even more lives. 

On April 3, a group of Chicago civil rights attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against Pritzker and Rob Jeffreys, the director of the Department of Corrections, on behalf of 10 incarcerated individuals. 

Without urgent action, the lawsuit states, "the novel coronavirus is likely to spread not just inside the walls of Illinois' 28 prisons, but throughout prison communities as well. Nearly 37,000 people are incarcerated in Illinois, living in close quarters where all aspects of daily life, including healthcare and food service, take place." 

Terrell said last month, the last time she spoke with her great-nephew, he told her that he had tested negative for COVID-19, but that he believes there are more prisoners who may be sick with the virus than people know. 

"He was a food service worker, cleaning pots and pans," Terrell said of her nephew. "He said one of his older colleagues was sick and unable to work, as well."  

Terrell requested that her son and great-nephew remain anonymous due to concerns for their wellbeing. 

Ford said the Department of Corrections also needs to be more vigilant about monitoring released inmates, many of whom return to communities like Austin. He referenced the case of Timothy Loving, a 59-year-old Austin resident who was released from Lincoln Correctional Center on March 11. Five days after his release, Loving was pronounced dead at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park. 

The Cook County Medical Examiner's office ruled that Loving died from respiratory failure related to COVID-19. He also had underlying medical issues including diabetes and chronic substance abuse.  

It isn't known how Loving contracted the virus. During an interview last week, an employee with the department's COVID-19 support line said that while he could not comment on Loving's case specifically, IDOC is not testing prisoners before they're released, unless they show any symptoms of the viral disease. 

"If we don't test them, they should at least be quarantined at a nice facility for 14 days," Ford said, adding that the current pandemic bolsters an argument he's been making for years in Springfield.  

"Since 2014, I've introduced and passed resolutions to urge the governor to release non-violent people from our state prisons," he said. "I have also passed resolutions to urge prosecutors and judges not to recommend sentencing non-violent people to prison." 

Ford said that, if people are not released from the state's prisons, the COVID-19 pandemic could potentially overwhelm the hospital system in the rural areas where most of the state's prisons are located.  

"Hospitals in those areas only have the ability to maybe take care of the populations that have been counted [in the U.S. census]," he said. "The last thing those towns need is to have people infected going into their community hospitals. There will be no room for the residents." 

Last week, Ford encouraged anyone related to people who are in prison for non-violent convictions and who support their release to email him at, so that he could pass their letters on to Pritzker. He also encouraged them to send supporting emails from friends and family members about why their relatives should be released. 

Terrell emailed Ford about her son. She's waiting anxiously for the governor's response. 


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Reader Comments

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Renna Thomas from Bolingbrook  

Posted: April 7th, 2020 12:52 PM

I have a family member in there one inmate has died. The officers are not wearing protective gear no hand sanitizer. They sate moving from one unit to the next, in which div 2 is infected with the most of COVID19. They transferred other inmates to various units. Whether guilty or innocent life is life. If the system was up to par and fair we would not have these issues. There are some that are guilty but a lot that are innocent awaiting trial. The sad part is the percentage affected is ethnic races. Cook County was nasty from the beginning. Not only are the inmates in trouble but the workers can take it and spread from the inside out. This is about money and not life. You let the non Caucasian out for more serious crimes they go home what the hell is the problem. Stop judging when you don't know everyone's story. We throw people away without knowing all the facts. Hell you have a criminal running the USA and no body complains about nothing he has done why because the color of the skin makes a difference. Financial status makes a difference and who you know does to. Let them go you have means to control but refuse to. Elections are coming these are the situations should show you who should stay and who should go. I suggest you write email and tweet your powers that be. Toni Preckwinkle, Tom Dart, the Mayor, Gov Pritzker, Danny Davis, Dick Durbin, LaShawn Ford, Kim Foxx. What we forget is these individuals are our employees they needed our vote to get in office make them work for it.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: April 5th, 2020 6:12 PM .. .. Just in case anyone here still believes this as. Red state/Blue state or GOP v Democratic issue. It's NOT - it's a human issue involving deadly contagion.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: April 5th, 2020 2:59 PM

Brian Slowiak since we are going to speculate, I would say it may be the processing time being delayed because of the probably of if a facility releases a person into society without first testing the person then the facility could be liable. So that may be the delay. You know the process and what we are dealing with now is going to change many things that we once knew so I do not think the person is being detained for another crime although I am just speculating and I do not watch Law and Order any more then I would watch a war movie although I certainly liked the John Wayne movies and then just never have bothered anymore. If you can think of ways to help fight this virus, even such as setting up trash bins for health care people to dump their gloves into instead of on the ground, that will help. All thinking can help

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: April 5th, 2020 11:54 AM

The ponderous Illinois judicial process. It ain't like what we see on Law and Order.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: April 5th, 2020 10:56 AM

@ William Dwyer: If his conviction was overturned why is the person at a minimum security prison camp? Additional charges perhaps?

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: April 5th, 2020 10:12 AM

Relax, Tom. Breeeeathe. You can go back to be an angry reactionary when this is over. No one is saying everyone in prison is innocent. Just that there's a problem with contagion that officials need to address. This situation requires thought, not knee jerk reaction.

Tom MacMillan  

Posted: April 5th, 2020 9:44 AM

Yeah, all the prisoners are innocent. All the crime in Illinois is just made up. Its a big conspiracy to grab people as they peacefully go about their day, harming no one. You have convinced me because Bill's prison pen pal says so.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: April 4th, 2020 10:50 PM

Tom MacMillan it really is not as bad as it seems. Take the case of the Ford Heights Four. It is popular enough to be on wikipedia. I met one of the men. He spent 20 years on lock down. That means not released in the general population and contained to a cell and allowed out 1 hour a day. He never did the crime and was released. People start out with petty crimes and are easy to push through the judicial system as some people want to build their own careers or have their own reasons. This is why integrity is so important to me. By the way, the man was awarded money, bought a small home, had a finance, and passed a way if I recall correctly around the age of 45 years old. The Wednesday Journal did a story on him several years ago

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: April 4th, 2020 10:19 PM

Well, Tom, the person I'm referring to had their conviction overturned by an Illinois Appellate court three months ago. Still there, though.

Tom MacMillan  

Posted: April 4th, 2020 9:59 PM

They are just caught up in a system? Lets all pretend they are cuddly and non violent career criminals, but hey, lets have no law or order and see how that works. Great idea, a real priority. Total anarchy.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: April 4th, 2020 3:12 PM

Tom MacMillan did you not read what William Dwyer Jr wrote or are you just worried you are under siege by non violent people who were caught up in the judicial system who need to provide all the necessities and can not. Since they can not effectively take care of people then they have decided to start releasing non violent criminals. You do not have to worry if you will be short on sanitizing supplies since there are none. There are also not many N95 respirators that medical staff working with highly contagious patients are not available although I noticed several younger people in line out side a store wearing them. They can select the time to shop. They can select the store they shop at. Medical staff do not have that luxury and the person who calls himself a war time president has not idea what that means. Your tax money was used to fly in supplies and they went missing in a warehouse were they are now being sold to the highest bidder. That is what you get when you think a country needs a failed business person over a real leader to run a country

Tom MacMillan from OAK PARK  

Posted: April 4th, 2020 9:54 AM

Crime creates all sorts of problems, even for the criminals. After everyone is released, where do they go? Home to infect their family members. And how do they pay for their lifestyle, it is not like there are jobs waiting for convicts who have not even served their time. So we have to deal with the virus, and a wave of criminals. And what is the message to criminals, worry and penalty free theft from now on? This idea is like pouring gas on a fire.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: April 3rd, 2020 6:20 PM

I'm in regular phone contact with an inmate at a minimum security prison camp, and he reports that they are restricted to their barracks (20 inmates to an open hall with bunk beds) with food brought in to their area, and no outside yard privileges. He says "social distancing is impossible, and expresses lots of anxiety about his vulnerability to infection

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