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 email@example.com, 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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