Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:54 p.m. on May 26 to include comments from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
An amended lawsuit filed against Rob Jeffreys, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week claims that the state’s prison system has failed to protect medically vulnerable prisoners from COVID-19.
The suit names nearly two dozen inmates at multiple state correctional facilities as plaintiffs. The individuals range in age from 25 to 66 years old, and all have at least one underlying health condition that makes them more susceptible to becoming severely sick if they contract COVID-19, according to the suit.
Alan Mills, executive director of the Chicago-based Uptown People’s Law Center, says the lawsuit, which was originally filed in early April, was changed to focus specifically on medically vulnerable people inside state prisons. Mills is one of several attorneys involved in the claim.
“In addition to saying you ought to speed the release of medically vulnerable people, we also talk alternatively that they ought to improve the way that they’re treated — meaning things like social distancing, cleaning high touch surfaces, avoiding cross contamination, all those sorts of things.”
Few people released
Since the pandemic began, the lawsuit claims that IDOC has released few prisoners from state facilities. Between March 1 and May 19, the lawsuit claims that IDOC has transferred home or released 1,261 people, but most of those individuals are not medically vulnerable and were within months of their scheduled release date anyway. The suit also claims that the prison system has only released 29 of the roughly 4,800 inmates who are age 55 or older during that same period. An executive order from the governor has expanded the department’s authority to grant medical furlough, but the lawsuit claims that IDOC policy excludes the vast majority of medically vulnerable prisoners from being released. The complaint states that the prison system’s policy limits medical furlough eligibility to only inmates with limited physical mobility and those who are terminally ill.
The oldest plaintiff named in the suit is a 66-year-old man with three months left on his sentence. He lives in the healthcare unit at the Dixon Correctional Center, uses a wheelchair for movement, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and heart conditions, according to the complaint. He also requires the use of continuous oxygen and a breathing treatment two to three times per day, the lawsuit claims. The complaint states that the prison system has refused to release this individual on medical furlough, despite his underlying health conditions and the short amount of time left on his sentence.
“Many of the older prisoners who are there for serious crimes may have spent 40 years in prison in some cases … they’re very different people than they were when they were teenagers … and those people are not getting out of prison. And that’s a real problem,” Mills says.
Testing and conditions inside the prisons
Mills says the lack of testing is another issue the complaint seeks to address. He says the prison system has tested less than 2% of the inmate population for COVID-19. Meanwhile, hundreds of inmates and correctional staff members have become sick with the virus — most at the Stateville Correctional Center — and at least 12 incarcerated men have died from COVID-19.
A spokesperson for IDOC, Lindsey Hess, wrote via email that inmates who become symptomatic with fever, cough or have difficulty breathing are assumed to be at high risk for COVID-19 and are isolated and tested for the virus, per state health department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines . She wrote that prisoners who are exposed to those individuals but display no symptoms are quarantined and monitored for symptoms. Hess wrote that about 650 incarcerated people have been tested for the virus — which equates to roughly 1.7 % of the prison system’s total population at the end of March.
“So frankly, we have no idea how widespread this infection has become in the prison system,” Mills says. “And that’s a problem because what everybody says what you need to do is identify those people who are carriers and isolate them so they don’t spread any further. Without knowing who the carriers are, there’s no way to isolate them.”
The lawsuit also claims that the prison system does not track who or how many employees have been tested for the virus, and that staff are not required to report testing results to the department. Hess wrote that the department tracks employees who report positive test results to the agency.
The complaint states that the department has not taken adequate preventative measures like ensuring inmates have access to supplies to ensure proper hygiene, the use of personal protective equipment, or enforcing social distancing among inmates and employees. The lawsuit demands that the department provide prisoners with unrestricted access to soap, frequently sanitize all shared surfaces, including telephones, properly use masks, gloves and other PPE, and avoid cross-contamination.
“What we’ve heard from all the prisoners we’ve talked to is that it is extraordinarily inconsistent. In many prisons, the culture among the guards seems to be they don’t wear masks, they leave them around their necks, and only put them on when somebody in a supervisor capacity shows up in the unit,” Mills says.
He says he’s heard from inmates and prison staff members that some prison guards wear gloves all the time, while others do not, and the same goes for masks.
“So that’s a real concern — the total inconsistency here — which simply suggests to me a lack of willpower, as it were, among administrators and middle level supervisors to enforce these rules,” Mills says.
The complaint asks the court to force IDOC to create a plan that prioritizes medically vulnerable inmates for release, and institute procedures to protect those people in its custody.
Mills says advocates for the imprisoned in Illinois are concerned about a spike in cases.
“That’s what we’re concerned about in the prisons, is that unless people begin to take this much more seriously than they have in the past, that we’re nowhere near done,” he says.”
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