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Illinois Prisons Have Tested Few Inmates For COVID-19, Researchers Say More Is Needed

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A protester outside Cook County Jail in Chicago on June, 13, 2020.

CHAMPAIGN – Nearly 350 incarcerated people in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 200 staff members have also contracted the virus. At least 13 inmates have died from COVID-19.

But as of June 23, IDOC had conducted only 958 COVID-19 tests on its prison population, and roughly 30% of those tests came back positive for the virus, according to data obtained by Illinois Newsroom. 

While the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet has been hardest hit by the virus, a recent outbreak at the East Moline Correctional Center led to 71 cases of the virus among inmates in that prison. 

While community-based sites offer free COVID-19 testing to anyone regardless of their symptoms, testing is limited inside state prisons to people who display symptoms of the virus, according to a spokesperson for IDOC, Lindsey Hess.

Hess wrote in an email earlier this month that the department uses “point prevalence testing in asymptomatic and potentially exposed offenders.” She says inmates who don’t show symptoms but were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 are quarantined and monitored. The department has a total inmate population of nearly 32,000, and more than 1,000 tests had been administered as of July 7, Hess said.

A recent report from the University of Illinois’ Institute for Government and Public Affairs urges increased testing of both prisoners and prison staff.

The report notes that outbreaks inside prisons and jail facilities can spill into outside communities — and vice versa — and adequate testing is needed to provide early detection for potential outbreaks of the illness.

Sage Kim, a co-author of the report and professor in health policy and administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the state’s prison system should test more widely, including testing of both asymptomatic prisoners and correctional staff. 

“I think that testing is fundamental to mitigating outbreak and spread because we have to know who has COVID-19 and then you can actually follow with isolating and moving these people (away from) the general prison population,” Kim said during an interview earlier this month.

The report also highlights the fact that IDOC publicly reports the number of confirmed cases among staff and inmates on its website, but the department does not publicly list the number of people tested for the virus. 

“This makes it difficult to gauge risk to the inmate population or to the communities surrounding correctional facilities where their workforces reside,” the authors of the report write.

Illinois prisons have conducted relatively few tests compared to departments of corrections in nearby states.

Ohio, for example, conducted mass testing for the virus among its inmate and staff population in April. By mid-April, the inmate and staff cases represented one-fifth of the confirmed COVID-19 cases across Ohio. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said at the time that they found positive cases among people who did not show symptoms of the virus and otherwise would not have been tested. 

Missouri’s prison system announced plans to test all staff and its 32,000 inmates for the virus in late May, while the Michigan Department of Corrections announced around that same time that it had tested nearly every single one of the prisoners in its custody for COVID-19.  

“So, I do think we can actually utilize more widespread testing within (Illinois’) inmate population (and) also staff,” Kim said. 

Hess, the spokesperson for IDOC, says the department does not require employees to get tested for COVID-19. She added that the department only tracks test results for employees who report their results to IDOC, and those who are ill are told to stay home and see a doctor. 

“All staff are closely monitored to ensure their health and safety,” Hess wrote in an email earlier this month. She says employee temperatures are taken when they arrive to work, and they’re given personal protective equipment.

But temperature and symptom monitoring may not detect people who have the illness but are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic

“I think that the key is to get as many tests as we can in place to move outside of just testing people who are symptomatic to people who are asymptomatic,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a co-author of the IGPA report, in an interview earlier this month. “We’ll get at something closer to a true rate of what the actual concern inside of the population inside the prison is.”

Wilson says scarcity of testing supplies is also an issue. But when asked if a lack of testing supplies has hampered the department’s ability to increase testing, Hess said that wasn’t that case. 

As of July 19, IDOC listed about 3,100 COVID-19 tests in total across all of its facilities. At East Moline Correctional Center, the site of the most recent outbreak, the prison listed 228 COVID-19 tests in its inventory — up from 120 tests in May. 

When asked if IDOC plans to increase testing among its inmate population, Hess wrote that the department’s practices are modified based on new information and technology.

“We continue to review the latest scientific evidence and remain in close contact with correctional agencies across the nation to identify best practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities,” she wrote.

The report from IGPA also included other recommendations, including attending to the basic health needs of inmates. After a decade of lawsuits, the Illinois prison system entered into a consent decree last year, which requires the department to provide adequate medical and dental care to its inmate population. Results from a survey conducted by the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, indicate that prisoners may not be getting the soap and cleaning supplies they need to protect themselves from and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Of the inmates who responded to the survey, which was conducted between April 24 and May 3, 35% said they didn’t have enough soap to regularly wash their hands in the last week, and nearly half reported that they were not provided with cleaning supplies. 

The report from IGPA says frequent hand washing and the availability of soap and hand sanitizer is a crucial mitigation strategy in the fight against COVID-19.

Other strategies outlined in the report include helping incarcerated people maintain ties with their family and friends, and limiting transmission of the virus by releasing people early. While the prison population has decreased significantly since the onset of the pandemic, the report notes that that may be due to scheduled releases and the ban on moving people held inside jails into state prisons. A lawsuit filed against the department in May claims that IDOC has released few of its most medically vulnerable inmates.

Kim says what happens behind bars impacts the broader community.

“Prisons are not isolated from surrounding communities, inmates come out of prisons all the time and also staff come in everyday to serve the prison population,” Kim says. “I think there is this very porous relationship between the Illinois Department of Corrections and surrounding communities.”

Wilson says it can be tempting for the broader community to ignore the spread of the disease inside the state’s prisons and jails. But she says the general public can learn a lot from the attempts to mitigate outbreaks behind bars. 

“I think we have a vested interest in understanding what’s happening with the prison population and understanding what’s happening with the prison staff,” she says.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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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