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‘A Lot Of These Older Guys Are Gonna Die’: COVID-19 Hits Illinois Prisons

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An Illinois Department of Corrections vehicle in St. Charles, Ill.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced this week that Illinois prisons would be closed to new inmates in response to growing concern about the COVID-19 pandemic spreading within Illinois’ correctional facilities.

As of Sunday, at least eight incarcerated men at Stateville Correctional Center have tested positive for the virus, along with multiple staff members at the prison. A staff member at the Sheridan Correctional Center also tested positive for COVID-19, and so did multiple individuals housed at the North Lawndale Adult Transition Center in Chicago.

Willie, an incarcerated person at Stateville, says he thinks many people inside the facility are infected.

Illinois Newsroom is not using Willie’s last name because he fears retaliation. Willie says he developed symptoms of COVID-19 in mid-March, including a fever, headache, cough and the loss of smell and taste. He says he has not been tested for COVID-19.

As of this week, Willie says staff at the prison began passing out water mixed with bleach that inmates could use to clean their cells. He says he hasn’t received any other cleaning supplies or personal hygiene products. Willie says he’s under quarantine and can’t leave his cell. Meals are delivered to the men on his cell block, Willie says, and he’s been unable to leave to take a shower. 

“They canceled all hospital passes, and all that. So it’s like you just don’t go out of your cell, you’re just stuck,” Willie says.

Jamal, another incarcerated person at Stateville, says he also has symptoms of the virus and hasn’t been tested. Illinois Newsroom is not using Jamal’s last name because he also fears retaliation.

“It began with a terrible headache. I had a fever and chills. I couldn’t really sleep. Then coughing ensued, with a dry cough at first, then it started getting phlegmy. I’ve been experiencing that for about a week and a half now,” Jamal says. He says his temperature has been taken once since the pandemic started.

Jamal says he was still going to work in the prison’s kitchen while experiencing these symptoms.

“They have taken little to no precautions when we prepare the food,” he says. “We do wear food service grade gloves. None of us are wearing masks.”

Jamal says many people in the prison are sick. 

“It’s like a symphony of coughs at night, during the day when it’s quiet, everybody’s just coughing. You can hear people are obviously sick,” he says.

Neither Jamal nor Willie believe the prison’s health care system is prepared to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients. They say the quality of health care inside is already poor. 

Willie says he’s particularly worried about older inmates with preexisting health conditions.

“They can’t even handle someone having an asthma attack, let alone multiple cases of coronavirus for somebody who is on dialysis, who has heart problems or respiratory problems,” Willie says. “I believe if (COVID-19) really, really hits, a lot of these older guys are gonna die, unless by the grace of God, they don’t.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections did not return a request for comment. The agency halted in-person visits to its prison facilities earlier this month. A statement on the department’s website says it will continue to provide showers, medical and mental health treatment, educational and substance abuse programming, access to phone calls, cleaning supplies, law libraries, and prison commissaries to incarcerated individuals while movement within facilities is restricted. 

‘These people have nothing’

Earlier this month, advocates for criminal justice reform called on Pritzker to release older and sick incarcerated individuals in an effort to protect them from COVID-19. Shari Stone-Mediatore, managing director of Parole Illinois, which advocates for sentencing reforms, is among those who signed onto the letter.

Stone-Mediatore says she’s heard from people inside Illinois prisons who say they’re experiencing symptoms of the virus and are not being tested for it, nor being provided adequate cleaning and personal hygiene supplies.

She received a message from someone incarcerated at Stateville informing her that dozens of people had lost their sense of smell and taste. 

“And when I did a Google search and found that loss of smell and taste was a symptom of COVID-19, I was just shaking because that was dozens of people who don’t even know that they are carrying the virus that are going to be spreading it,” Stone-Mediatore says. 

She says long-standing issues with inadequate medical care and overcrowded prisons enable outbreaks, like COVID-19, to take root in the state’s prisons.

Stone-Mediatore commends Pritzker’s action, but she says more needs to be done. Stone-Mediatore says all inmates should be tested for the virus so prison officials know how widespread the problem actually is, and prisons should also provide people with cleaning supplies they can keep inside their cells. She says prisoners should also be able to spend time outside while practicing social distancing and have opportunities to communicate with their loved ones on the outside. 

“When we talk about adequate medical care, those of us out here are thinking about having a respirator, having, you know, all kinds of elaborate things that we might need,” Stone-Mediatore says. “These people have nothing. So better medical care for them means at least basic, minimal things like a clean (cell) house, a clean hospital bed. The health care units in most prisons are filthy.”

She says she hopes continued coverage of the virus’ impact on the Illinois correctional system inspires improvements in the health care and living conditions within the state’s prisons. 

While advocates say Pritzker hasn’t gone far enough to mitigate the threat COVID-19 poses for incarcerated people, others have criticized his decision to close prisons to new inmates.

The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association (ISA) issued a statement saying the governor’s action jeopardizes the safety of inmates and correctional officers in county jails across the state. 

“Law enforcement believes the entire state is in this together, but this policy shifts an enormous burden to every county jail, when it is most appropriate to transfer individuals to a state correctional facility,” ISA President Mike Everett said in the statement. “We ask this decision be reevaluated so that we can safely and securely transfer health individuals out of local correctional facilities to another appropriate location within the state’s criminal justice system.”

Update at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 29, 2020: This story was updated to reflect an increase in the number of incarcerated men at Stateville who have tested positive for COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. We recommend checking the Coronavirus Information Center for the most recent numbers and guidance.

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Lee V. Gaines

Lee V. Gaines

Lee Gaines covers Education for the Illinois Newsroom. She started at Illinois Public Media in 2017 and her stories have been featured nationally on NPR. Prior to her work at IPM, Lee wrote for newspapers and magazines in Chicago and nationally. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and the Marshall Project. She also recently completed a fellowship with the Education Writers Association. ➤ lvgaines@illinois.edu@LeeVGaines

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