Hundreds of Illinois prisoners released as COVID-19 spreads, but few elderly see reprieve

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Editor’s note (May 7): This story has been updated to include a response from the Illinois Department of Corrections. 

The Illinois Department of Corrections released hundreds of prisoners in March and April using good time credits, electronic detention, and other optional measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic—but only a small number of elderly prisoners have benefited.

Older populations remain at particularly high risk of death or serious complications from the novel coronavirus. Inmates who are 60 and older comprise a small, but growing, percentage of the total prison population in the state. Prison reform advocates have called on the department to release older and medically vulnerable prisoners.

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Only four percent of the individuals who have left prisons across the state in March and April were 60 years or older, according to public data released by the department.

The vast majority of the prisoners released in March and April left custody after their sentences concluded. But about a quarter of those individuals, or 1,056 people, exited prison facilities as a result of the Illinois Department of Corrections optional use of medical and family furloughs, electronic detention, and a law that gives the department power to award up to six months of earned sentencing credit to lessen a prisoner’s time in custody. Only 49 inmates who are in their 60s, 70s and 80s were granted release as a result of these measures.

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Older inmates have mostly been left behind by criminal justice reforms. Now, after one inmate has already died from COVID-19, more than two thousand of them are at serious risk.

Through the sentencing credits, electronic detention, and furloughs, the Department of Corrections has released the bulk of prisoners from four facilities: Stateville, Decatur, Illinois River, and Logan correctional centers.

The virus has hit Stateville harder than any other Illinois prison facility to date. The Department of Corrections reported 11 coronavirus-related deaths at Stateville, according to a statistical report obtained by Injustice Watch this week that state officials had shared with legislators Sunday night. The report did not specify whether the deceased were prisoners or staffers. In addition to being the prison hit hardest by COVID-19, Stateville is one of the largest facilities in the state. Decatur and Logan are women’s prisons.

As the public health crisis has unfolded, prisoners or staff have tested positive for the virus at 18 different correctional facilities.

Jobi Cates, Executive Director of Restore Justice Illinois, a prison reform organization, said she was grateful for the releases that have been made, despite pushing for more.

“The raw number of releases isn’t nearly enough to provide the kind of relief we would need to free up medical resources for the inmates that remain,” Cates said.

The department released slightly more inmates from prison facilities each in both March and in April than in February, before the virus began spreading in the United States, according to the state’s report to lawmakers.

The earned sentence credits shortened almost 650 prisoners’ sentences by an average of about 12 weeks, according to public data released by the department. Roughly 300 of the now-released individuals did not appear to have been released earlier than their estimated release date, according to the data. A department spokeswoman said that individuals’ estimated release dates are updated when sentencing credits are applied, but did not explain why that only appeared to be true for about one-third of those released.

A version of the sentencing credits law sparked controversy in 2010 after reporters discovered that a man charged with murder in Peoria had recently served just two weeks of his two-year sentence as a result of what was then called meritorious good time credits.

In 2018, the Illinois Department of Corrections did not award the earned sentencing credits to a single inmate. Last year, they issued credits to 122 prisoners.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, Executive Director at the independent prison watchdog group the John Howard Association, warned against comparing the number of credits awarded to past years. She said the utilization of the policy has been building very slowly.

“It’s something we’ve been pushing for a long time, and they’re doing it,” Vollen-Katz said. “I don’t want to come down on them for the timing.”

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