Deaths in custody: Under Illinois’ criminal justice overhaul, prisons must notify families

Illinois prisons and jails will soon be required to notify families when their incarcerated loved ones die. As part of the sweeping criminal justice overhaul now awaiting Governor J.B. Pritzker’s signature, state correctional facilities must investigate deaths in custody and report them to immediate family members, as well as the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a state agency that conducts research and analysis.

The Reporting Deaths in Custody Act affords a sliver of transparency to families who struggle to get information from the Illinois Department of Corrections, a problem exacerbated by Covid-19. But mothers like Cynthia McDonald wonder why families cannot be informed of loved ones’ illnesses while they are still alive.

In December, Injustice Watch reported allegations from McDonald and another Illinois mother that the corrections department never contacted them when their incarcerated sons were hospitalized with Covid-19.

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McDonald’s son, Joseph Wilson, died from the virus in April 2020. He was incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois. Throughout Wilson’s illness, McDonald alleges she received no communication from the corrections department, instead learning of her son’s hospitalization from an off-duty correctional officer he was friends with.

Advocates say that there’s more work to be done to ensure that family members aren’t left in the dark about their loved ones’ health once they enter the prison system.

In her son’s final days, McDonald recalled feeling helpless and frustrated as she tried to get information on his condition and location.

“It just seems like once they get there, there’s no consideration for them or the family,” she said.

Joseph Wilson portrait

Photo by Davon Clark

Portrait of Joseph Wilson sent to his mother by a friend at the Stateville Correctional Center.

Terry Zahn’s son, Robert Eyler, contracted Covid-19 at Jacksonville Correctional Center in August 2020. He died a month later at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Illinois. Zahn alleges she was never contacted by the corrections department when her son became sick, despite having medical power of attorney. A nurse at the medical center called Zahn at her son’s request to inform her that he was hospitalized and being treated for Covid-19.

Zahn was pleased to learn of the legislation passed in January but said it didn’t go far enough.

“It’s important but it doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t solve the way that they treat family members,” Zahn said.

Injustice Watch asked Senator Elgie Sims, a co-sponsor of the landmark criminal justice bill, whether family notification would be a logical legislative next step given the success of the reform bill passed in January.

“I’ve said all along that the reform process will continue; the passage of this bill doesn’t mean that we have solved every problem in the criminal justice system,” Sims said.

Terry Zahn and baby Eyler

Photo courtesy of Terry Zahn

Terry Zahn, holding her son, Robert Eyler as a child

‘See what sticks’

Improving communications between correctional facilities and the outside world is an immense challenge.

“The lack of transparency is simply built into the system. Prisons are not set up for transparency on anything, medical or security or anything else,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.

For years, the advocacy group Restore Justice has called for creating a family point-of-contact position in the corrections department’s central office.

“We’re in this situation where families do the time alongside their loved one,” said executive director Jobi Cates.

One possible measure gaining momentum in the wake of Illinois’ criminal justice overhaul is a new ombudsman office for the corrections department. The office would act as a third-party mediator between incarcerated people and corrections, but it could also aid families with access to information.

In 2019, Illinois State Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan) introduced legislation to create such an ombudsman for the state prison system. The bill failed to pass before the end of the last legislative session.

In a January interview with Injustice Watch, Mayfield stressed the importance of an office completely independent from the corrections department. Her bill would require the ombudsman to report to the lieutenant governor’s office.

Mayfield said that she plans to reintroduce this legislation in the General Assembly’s upcoming session. In light of the General Assembly’s passage of sweeping criminal justice reform in January, she said, “now is the time. We have to throw everything up against the wall and just see what sticks.”

Todd Belcore, the co-founder and executive director of Chicago-based advocacy organization Social Change, has been one of the leaders behind the drafting of the ombudsman legislation.

“The inmates’ concerns are family concerns in our mind,” Belcore told Injustice Watch. “We have hundreds of pages of legislation and what we end up negotiating into the final version, I don’t know, but it’s certainly a critical piece of it.”

A band-aid solution?

Several other U.S. states have established ombudsman offices to oversee corrections departments, with varying results for families.

In 2018, Washington State created an Ombuds office following an eleven-year grassroots push from families and advocates.

But while the office does field calls and accepts families’ complaints, it does not give status updates on individual inmates, according to director Joanna Carns. Carns told Injustice Watch that the office’s legal mandate is to investigate claims of harm to an incarcerated person, not communicate with families. Whenever families reach out for information, it is their policy to contact the incarcerated person before they respond, Carns said.

Requiring family notification is difficult since it involves releasing medical records, according to Sarah Grady, head of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at Loevy and Loevy, a Chicago-based civil rights firm. The Illinois corrections department often cites medical privacy or security concerns to justify a lack of communication with families.

At a minimum, Grady said, correctional facilities should be required to provide incarcerated people and their families with the proper forms for release of medical information and make good-faith efforts to keep the forms up to date.

Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Social Medicine and co-founder of the COVID Prison Project, thinks that an ombudsman’s office won’t be enough to bridge the gap between families and corrections departments.

“It’s like a band-aid slapped on an issue to appease people,” said Brinkley-Rubinstein, who favors specific legislation requiring family notification.

“I don’t think it’s going too far to say that if you have a family member who is incarcerated there ought to be rules in place around notification,” she said.

Terry Zahn agrees. “There are people that are in prison that have family that love them. And that pisses me off. Because they’re not doing it the right way,” she said. “There should be some humanity. Just because they’re in prison, don’t mean they’re not loved.”