Updated at 5:30 p.m. with the age of the inmate who died.
As the new coronavirus began its rapid spread through Illinois communities, prison guards at the Logan Correctional Center passed out hotel-size bars of soap and installed disinfectant dispensers, according to 65-year-old prisoner Janet Jackson.
Despite the department’s efforts last week, cleaning supplies were soon scant at the women’s prison, Jackson wrote in an email to Injustice Watch.
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“Soap did not last one day, no refill,” wrote Jackson, who has been serving a life sentence for murder since 1986. “No gloves, no masks, no distance as we are still four to an 11 x 12 room. 66 women for three toilets, sinks, showers.”
Jackson is one of more than 2,300 inmates who are 60 and older in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, a group facing higher chances of death and severe health risks if infected with the COVID-19 virus.
On Monday, officials reported that an inmate in his 50s at Stateville Correctional Center, in Joliet, had died from COVID-19, and 12 others had been hospitalized, some of them on ventilators. There are at least 77 other men at Stateville who are symptomatic, officials said. The corrections department has now reported at least 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates and staff, but more than 180 others are awaiting test results.
The death added further urgency to the calls to release older people, in particular those with underlying medical conditions, from Illinois’s prisons.
As of December, Stateville held 212 inmates over the age of 60, the second-largest number in the state, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of IDOC data. It is also one of the most crowded IDOC facilities, according to a January report from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
In an emailed statement, department spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said that the agency is taking steps to mitigate the spread of the virus among inmates and staff in state prisons. Some of those measures include quarantining all facilities, limiting movement within facilities, screening staff for COVID-19 symptoms, providing cleaning supplies like soap and hand sanitizer, and monitoring inventory to ensure cleaning supplies are available.
Hess also said in the statement that corrections officials are working with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and Gov. JB Pritzker to “review individuals eligible for early release.”
At a press conference Monday, Pritzker said his office has been reviewing “low-level offenders” and those with short amounts of time left on their sentences for potential release.
Bill Ryan, a longtime prison reform advocate, said releasing non-violent offenders from prison does little to protect the older inmates who are mostly housed in medium or maximum security penitentiaries across the state.
“That does nothing,” Ryan said of releasing low-level offenders. “If [Pritzker] wants to do anything, he has to look at the over 60 [population].”
A drop in prison population, but a rise in seniors
While the overall population in Illinois’s prisons has dropped by more than 20 percent since 2011, the 60-and-older population has increased by more than 50 percent, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of IDOC data.
Policing and legislative reforms have helped drive down the prison population by admitting fewer people for low-level, non-violent offenses, said David Olson, a Loyola University Chicago criminologist. But roughly 80 percent of current elderly prisoners are in on violent offenses, Olson said, and 40 percent of them are subject to truth-in-sentencing guidelines that do not allow for sentence reduction credits or early release.
The state is now confronting laws passed in the 1990s that required lengthy sentences for those who commit violent crimes “without fully appreciating what you do when that person’s 70 years old, no longer poses a threat, and [is] expensive to care for,” Olson said. “And now you potentially expose them to an environment that could be fatal.”
Illinois is one of the only U.S. states without “medical parole” or “compassionate release,” according to a 2018 report by Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Currently, the only way for most terminally ill state inmates to secure an early release is through executive clemency.
However, two bills introduced in the state legislature earlier this year, before the coronavirus outbreak, aim to provide a path to release for the oldest and sickest inmates.
One bill, introduced by State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago), would allow a small segment of the prison population who are terminally ill or medically incapacitated to be paroled. Another bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), would create the possibility of parole for inmates who are 60 and older and have been incarcerated for at least 20 years, or younger inmates who have been in prison for at least 30 years.
As of December, there were about 815 inmates in IDOC who would be eligible to apply for elderly parole if that bill passed, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of prisoner population data released by the department.
Both the compassionate release and elderly parole bills are currently stalled in committee, as the state legislature suspended its session due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Guzzardi said he is confident his bill will pass once the legislature resumes. But for now, he is more concerned about finding ways to immediately release those at highest risk for complications due to the coronavirus.
“We need to get [incarcerated people] out, and we need to get the elderly and the vulnerable out the quickest,” Guzzardi said.
Elderly inmates fear for their health and safety
In messages sent on prison tablets, older inmates expressed fear about their vulnerability to the virus and a lack of trust in the department’s ability to protect them.
At the Hill Correctional Center, 67-year-old Johnny Veal wrote that guards were being tested for fevers and flu-like symptoms, but that the same was not being done for inmates. Veal wrote last week that essentially all movement inside the Galesburg, Illinois prison had ceased, leaving inmates in cells for all but 30 minutes of each day.
Prison officials had begun to place all transfers into the facility into a single unit as a quarantine measure, but nothing was being done in particular to protect the elderly population, according to Veal.
“There is one hand sanitizer in the foyer area for over 420 inmate in all four units,” Veal wrote last week when the prisoners were still allowed to move within the penitentiary. “There is no hand sanitizer machine in the living areas or day room spaces. There are two hand sanitizers in the school building one up stairs and one down stairs. None in the hospital, gym, yard or dining area.”
At the Dixon Correctional Center, 61-year-old Ronnie Carrasquillo wrote in an email received Friday that the men in custody are kept in their cells aside from 30 minutes each morning and evening. The inmates are still eating in the chow hall, he wrote, but under strict orders from prison staff to leave an empty chair between each other.
Raymond Larson, a 75-year-old man imprisoned at the Pontiac Correctional Center, wrote that his facility had been put on lockdown as of last Saturday, but applauded the prison’s response so far. He reported that there are working sinks with hot and cold water, soap and paper towels everywhere, and that hand sanitizer had been made available in many locations.
“The Warden and other staff have issued cleaning schedules and instructions, and bleach is being used to disinfect and sanitize,” Larson wrote. “I believe for the most part people (staff especially) are taking this situation seriously, and realize how easily and potentially deadly any outbreak would be.”
Ryan, the advocate, said providing cleaning supplies and soap will not be enough to curtail the virus in the crowded prison system.
“In a six-by-nine cell with two humans, bunk beds, you can’t distance in that,” Ryan said.
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