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Amid Flu Outbreak In Illinois Prison, Inmates Not Being Tested For COVID-19

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Advocates gather for a rally in Chicago on Thursday, March 12 to draw attention to legislation that would reinstate parole for Illinois' aging prison population. Advocates are also calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to release elderly and infirm inmates from Illinois prisons and jails in a bid to protect them from COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus.

Update: This story was updated at 1:35 p.m. Friday, March 13, 2020 to state that the Illinois Department of Corrections is not currently testing individuals in the prison system for COVID-19.

URBANA – A group of educators who work inside Illinois’ prison system are urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to release elderly and sick inmates from the state’s correctional facilities in a bid to protect them from COVID-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus. 

A spokesperson for Illinois Department of Corrections, Lindsey Hess, wrote in an email that, as of Wednesday, there are no known cases of COVID-19 among inmates and prison staff. 

There is a flu outbreak at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois, according to Hess. She wrote that about 55 men at the prison are under quarantine, and visits to the facility are temporarily suspended. In total, 10 state prisons have inmates under quarantine due to the flu, according to Hess. Aside from Menard, visitors are still allowed inside state prisons, however they cannot visit those under quarantine, Hess wrote. Individuals in IDOC facilities are not currently being tested for COVID-19, Hess wrote. She wrote that the agency is working closely with the Illinois Department of Public Health to monitor individuals for respiratory illness. 

Members of the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (ILCHEP) drafted a letter this week calling on the governor to order a review of all people in Illinois’ prisons and jails who are either elderly and infirm, and then release as many as possible. 

Health experts say COVID-19 poses the greatest risk to older individuals and those with chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease.

Katrina Burlet, a member of ILCHEP, said advocates and loved ones of prisoners are concerned about their well being because prisons and jails are ripe environments for contagion.

“They tend to be less sanitary, people are kept in close quarters, people can be chained together when they’re walking from place to place,” she said. “It’s not really possible to protect yourself in that kind of situation.”

Hundreds of cases of COVID-19 were reported in multiple Chinese prisons, while Iran temporarily released tens of thousands of its prisoners in light of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Burlet said elderly prisoners pose an “extremely low risk” to public safety, and she’s optimistic Pritzker will consider the group’s request. 

Pritzker’s press office did not respond to a request for comment on the letter. 

Cheryl Adamo, a Norridge resident, has a son incarcerated in Stateville Correctional Center just outside of Chicago. She said her son, who is 38 years old, is healthy, but she’s worried about the state’s older and sick inmates.

“I just feel that if (COVID-19) was to get into the prison, that it would go through it like wildfire,” Adamo said. She said she visited her son in Stateville on Wednesday and was surprised the prison was still open to visitors. 

Adamo and Burlet said they don’t believe the prison system’s healthcare infrastructure can adequately care for inmates in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. Neither does Bill Ryan. Ryan is an 86-year-old activist who has lobbied for legislation that would reinstate parole for Illinois’ aging prison population.

“That medical system inside the prison isn’t able to handle anything,” Ryan said. “The medical care in there is atrocious.” (A court appointed monitor was tasked with overseeing an overhaul of IDOC’s healthcare system in 2019 following a class-action lawsuit against the agency that alleged a lack of basic sanitation, medical errors and failures in basic care.)

Ryan also supports releasing elderly prisoners, and he’s worried about his older friends who are incarcerated in state prisons.

“Anybody that tests positive for the coronavirus in prison should really be on some kind of medical relief or something,” Ryan said. “If that person stays in there and and they only go on lock down —  that virus is going to spread throughout the whole institution.”

In a statement, Hess wrote that the prison system is preparing for an outbreak of COVID-19.

She wrote that people experiencing symptoms of the virus or who may have been exposed to the illness, may not be permitted to visit a state correctional facility. 

“The Department is working closely with the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to ensure the health of people in custody and our staff,” Hess wrote.

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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