Joseph Horton is overwhelmed and stressed because he’s struggling to keep himself and his cell clean. Horton is incarcerated at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois. He says safety measures have improved in the prisons since the pandemic began, but he says more could be done to protect inmates.
“I’m in a cell with another individual that’s not clean. I’m the only one in here cleaning the cell. There’s bugs. It’s just so overwhelming. I’m stressed,” Horton says.
Horton says prison staff recently started distributing masks to inmates on a weekly basis. He says they also receive one small bar of soap each week, and occasionally staff provide bleach diluted with water for inmates to use to clean their cells.
“Whatever they give us to clean the cells with is basically water, you know, and you put it in a bottle and it doesn’t even have a smell. It’s just like using plain water,” Horton says.
Earlier this spring, a group of educators donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of hand sanitizer and soap to the Illinois Department of Corrections in an effort to help inmates like Horton protect themselves from the coronavirus. But some inmates and their loved ones say prisoners have yet to benefit from this donation, and that more cleaning supplies are needed.
A new way for teachers to help
After Illinois prisons closed to visitors and outside groups working in the prison, educators from the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (IL-CHEP) wanted to find a way to help their students and other incarcerated people during the pandemic.
Rebecca Ginsburg, who leads a college-in-prison program that offers University of Illinois classes to incarcerated men at the Danville Correctional Center, says IL-CHEP reached out to prison staff to ask what they could do.
“And the response to that was: we would really appreciate sanitizer and masks,” Ginsburg says. “That was when it became clear that our roles were going to change from being that of educators to being among the parties that are working hard to do our best to ensure that our students and others who are locked up stay healthy and stay alive.”
Ginsburg says the group assigned members different tasks. Ellen Ritter, who normally works with incarcerated students at the Danville prison, spearheaded the effort to get hand sanitizer to the state’s prisons.
On April 1, Ritter drove a large vehicle from Champaign to a distillery in Chicago to pick up 100 gallons of sanitizer the group purchased.
“It was kind of stressful because this distillery was making sanitizer for lots of different people, and so there was this sense of, if we don’t hurry up and pay for it now, get there as soon as possible, that we’re going to lose it,” she says.
Ritter says she was also worried for her own safety.
“This is like when COVID was just getting started, and we’re under a stay at home order… and I’m driving up to a hotspot kind of risking my own health and safety to pick up the sanitizer,” she says.
The group purchased another 610 gallons of sanitizer from a distillery in Peoria. IDOC officials agreed to pick up the sanitizer, which was then transported to Menard and later distributed to correctional facilities across the state, according to emails obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Ritter says the group also had to purchase about 14,000 bottles and labels for the sanitizer. In total, they spent nearly $50,000, which includes the purchase of more than 50,000 bars of soap. Ginsburg says most of the money came from a grant provided by a private foundation, as well about $10,000 received via online donations.
Where did it go?
A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections, Lindsey Hess, wrote in an email that the agency appreciates the donation. As of May 18, Hess says the soap and all but 140 gallons of the donated sanitizer were distributed to state correctional facilities.
But Horton, the inmate from Menard Correctional Center, says he hasn’t received any hand sanitizer.
“None of that. None of that. We get none of that. That’s out of the question. We will never get that,” he says.
Hess says inmates are not allowed to have hand sanitizer inside their cells because it contains toxic chemicals. She says correctional staff dispenses sanitizer directly into inmates’ hands whenever they leave or enter their living units and throughout the day as needed.
Ginsburg, with IL-CHEP, says that’s disappointing.
“Because we had hoped that we would be able to supply each cell with a sanitizer, and that kind of sanitizer we’re providing is actually a liquid sanitizer that doubles as a disinfectant for surfaces so that they could use it not only to keep their hands sanitized but also the surfaces of their cell,” she says.
In an email exchange obtained via a records request, IDOC’s logistics chief, Patrick Connolly, wrote that every inmate is supposed to receive a 3-ounce bar of soap each week. Connolly was responding to an email from Ginsburg asking how the donated soap and sanitizer had been distributed. He explained the donated soap was sent to regional distribution centers around the state where staff from each prison can pick them up. Connolly wrote that the distribution of the hand sanitizer was a lengthier process, due to the fact that staff at the agency had to bottle it before it could be distributed.
“I will close by saying that your donations have been incredibly helpful to the overall DOC mission of ensuring the safety of everyone at the facilities,” Connolly wrote. “Because COVID-19 is such an unpredictable event I would not even attempt to suggest that we are prepared to decline donations.”
What their loved ones say
Cecelia Stewart says if prison staff are distributing soap, her son isn’t getting any. Stewart’s son is held at Stateville Correctional Center, where hundreds have become sick with the virus and 12 men have died. She says her son is now receiving higher quality masks, but “they’re not getting no bar soap.”
As for hand sanitizer, Stewart says “they’re coming maybe once a shift and spraying their hands through the bars, and that’s it.” She says her son told her that correctional staff also spray their hands when they’re taken to the prison yard.
Like Horton, Stewart says her son is struggling to keep his cell clean. She says he uses laundry detergent he purchases from the prison commissary to clean his living space.
“He buys his own soap. They don’t sanitize anything. If he wants to clean anything, he has to do it with his own supplies,” she says. Stewart says water is also a coveted commodity. She says her son received bottled water a few weeks ago.
“Him and his cellmate told me that the bottled water that they were given tasted 10 times different than the brown (tap) water they have there. They have brown water… but that was the only time they were given water,” Stewart says.
Melly Rios, whose husband is incarcerated at Stateville, wrote via email that he’s received a bar of soap, and his hands are sprayed with sanitizer before meals and before he receives medication.
“No cleaning supplies,” Rios wrote. “My husband has been cleaning his cell daily with state-funded toothpaste.”
Kristen Serrano’s fiance is incarcerated at Lincoln Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in central Illinois. She says her fiance has received “hotel bar soap” but no hand sanitizer. She says her fiance, who lives in a dorm-like setting with about 19 other people, told her there is a hand sanitizer dispenser in the prison’s day room, but not in his dorm.
“He said in early or mid-March they filled up the hand sanitizer dispenser… it’s not been filled up since, so they’ve not had any hand sanitizer,” she says. Serrano says her fiance is given bleach diluted with water to clean his dorm room.
“I don’t know how often that is happening, though,” she says.
The role of prison educators
Tim Barnett is a professor at Northeastern Illinois University and a member of IL-CHEP. He says he’s heard of different things happening at different correctional facilities.
“There doesn’t seem to be any standard way of dealing with this. And I know that the prisons operate that way, but it seems if there’s one time when there should be some standardization of how people are treated — this might be that time,” Barnett says. He says working with IL-CHEP to donate sanitizer and soap, as well as advocate for the release of elderly and infirm inmates, has caused him to reflect on what it means to be an educator during the pandemic.
“I never would have seen myself in the last two months doing the things I’m doing,” he says. “With this turning everything into a life or death situation, it really sort of makes you think, makes you reflect on who we are supposed to be.”
Barnett says it’s also an unusual position for educators, many of whom are themselves employed by state entities, to be donating emergency supplies to another state agency.
Ritter, also with IL-CHEP, says her feelings are mixed as well. She says it feels rewarding to provide needed supplies to her students and others inside prisons, “and at the same time, it just doesn’t seem like this is where the burden should lie (with) the Illinois Coalition of Higher Education folks, who are spending half their jobs trying to figure this out for a different agency.”
Hess, with IDOC, wrote in an email that the department did not solicit the donations.
“When IL-CHEP reached out offering financial support, we communicated that hand sanitizer would be most helpful,” Hess wrote. “We are very grateful for their donation.” She says IDOC has received “significant distribution of critical supplies from the state. We have also procured supplies from a variety of vendors throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so.”
A spokesperson for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office wrote in an email that the governor’s administration is working alongside IDOC officials to “explore every option at our disposal to ensure the safety and well-being of people under our care.” They wrote that the state has supplied the prison system with nearly half a million gloves, about 1.1 million surgical masks with shields, more than 400,000 KN95 masks, hundreds of thousands of bars of soap and about 4,700 gallons of hand sanitizer.
Ginsburg says she’s not sure whether IL-CHEP will continue to send donations to IDOC. She says the group will still advocate for better conditions inside correctional facilities as well as sentencing reform and support for those returning to society.
“But the relief work that we’ve been involved with in the past several weeks, I don’t know how long we can afford to continue to do that,” Ginsburg says. “And we also don’t know how long it’s wise to continue to do that. So it’s an open question.”
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