Illinois must show compassion when coronavirus hits our elderly prison population

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The COVID-19 novel coronavirus has arrived in Illinois.

As frightening as news reports are, most of us can take steps to protect ourselves: We can self-quarantine or seek immediate care if we begin to show signs of illness. But people incarcerated in Illinois—more than 8,000 of whom are elderly—cannot. They are at the mercy of a system that has shown utter indifference to their medical needs.

A recent court-ordered report found that even though “the health care and correctional resources required to meet the needs of this aging population is staggering,” the Illinois Department of Corrections lacks the infrastructure to collect and monitor information about patients and their conditions.

Even without the burden of the coronavirus, IDOC infirmaries “are becoming filled with patient-inmates who are confused, incontinent, and require assistance with the basic activities of daily living,” according to the report.

The Illinois prison population is so large and aged thanks to extreme sentencing policies going back to the 1970s, combined with a dramatic reduction in opportunities for earned release in the 1990s. With more and more people serving long sentences, Illinois now has an incarceration rate that is nearly five times that of China’s, and a prison system strained to the breaking point.

It is not a question of “if” coronavirus enters our prisons, but when. The virus may enter facilities from one of more than 8,600 correctional officers who move back and forth between the prison system and their communities each day. More likely, coronavirus will be introduced by one of the more than 2,000 sick and elderly people who move between a prison bed and a hospital bed each month, too ill to be safely treated within a prison setting, but returned there anyway.

Once coronavirus is introduced to IDOC facilities, it will cripple an already broken system.  Elderly people and their loved ones will pay the highest price because the virus has a substantially higher mortality rate for elderly people. It is deeply upsetting that those people most susceptible to death from this pandemic are those who least likely need to be incarcerated. Elderly people who have served long sentences rarely re-offend.

At the same time, elderly people cost two to five times more to incarcerate than younger people, according to an American Civil Liberties Union analysis. Illinois spent nearly $2 billion on incarceration last year, without the additional costs that will surely come with a novel and pandemic flu.

There are steps Illinois can take to prevent catastrophe.

Recognizing the coronavirus’s potential for devastation, Iran has temporarily freed 70,000 of its prisoners IDOC has the power today to immediately release elderly people who have less than 12 months left to serve on their sentences. That’s more than 1,000 people who are most at risk of deadly and expensive complications. IDOC can also provide additional soap and cleaning supplies to inmates. It can facilitate safe visits by providing masks, hand sanitizer, and easy access to handwashing facilities.

Corrections officials in every facility should listen and respond to the worried inquiries from families of incarcerated people. Reducing the coronavirus’s harm within prisons starts with treating people in custody with dignity, thoughtfulness, and care.

Any successful response to the coronavirus in prison will require moral clarity far greater than what’s driven public policy in Illinois for the last forty years. Now, more than ever, our public officials must be proactive rather than reactive, measured rather than fearful, and compassionate above all else.

Jobi Cates is the executive director of the Restore Justice Foundation. Jennifer Soble is the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project