Prisoner Review Board delays parole rehearing for two elderly inmates as COVID-19 spreads behind bars

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When the Illinois Prisoner Review Board considered parole earlier this month for a handful of aging inmates who committed crimes before the state scaled back parole in 1978, two men fell just one vote shy of release.

The parole hopefuls, Danny Lillard and Salik Abdullah, were both convicted of murders committed in the 1970s. The men would typically have to wait another year before the Prisoner Review Board could again weigh releasing either from prison.

But in a rare move, two board members who initially voted against each man’s release requested a hearing to reconsider their decisions. However, as correctional officers and inmates have begun to test positive for the COVID-19 virus in correctional facilities, advocates for the men fear the hearing will arrive too late.

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On Monday, state officials announced the first prisoner had died from COVID-19.

The next en banc, or full Prisoner Review Board hearing where the cases could be reconsidered is scheduled for May 28. A hearing scheduled for late April was cancelled this week.

Associate appellate defender Tiffany Green, who is independently representing Abdullah on a pro bono basis, said that the 62-year-old has an array of health problems, including asthma and high cholesterol, in addition to being legally blind that put him at particular risk if infected with the virus.

“Truthfully, if we have to wait until the next en banc hearing, coronavirus will get into the prisons, and once [it does] it’s going to spread like wildfire like it has in the nursing homes,” Green said.  “And that could be too late for Salik.”

One of the board members who asked for a reconsideration vote, attorney Virginia Martinez, said she had been considering changing her vote against parole in Lillard’s case since he was just one vote short of the majority needed for release.

She said her initial opposition was in part due to the Illinois Department of Corrections’s failure to provide the board with Lillard’s psychiatric evaluation, but when she realized 67-year-old Lillard could be one of the people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she decided to request a rehearing.

“IDOC didn’t do the report, but the inmate shouldn’t suffer for it,” Martinez said of Lillard.

Asked if a virtual meeting could happen before the next scheduled hearing, Board Chairman Craig Findley wrote Tuesday in an email to Injustice Watch that there was “nothing to report at this time.”

Meanwhile, three bills are currently stalled in the state legislature that would award more authority to the Prisoner Review Board in releasing elderly or ill inmates.

One bill would allow for the parole of terminally ill or permanently incapacitated prisoners.  Another bill in the state senate would create parole opportunities for all offenders serving time in the department of corrections after the person serves 20 years, 25 percent of a sentence, or the minimum sentence for the most serious offense that person is convicted of.

A third bill would create parole opportunities for prisoners who are 60 and older and have served at least 20 years of their sentence, and younger individuals who have served at least 30 years.

As of December, there were about 815 inmates who are 60 and older, and who have already served 20 years 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.

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