Stateville prison reopens decrepit ‘F-House’ to hold inmates with COVID-19

About 70 men are being quarantined in Stateville prison’s notorious roundhouse, which was closed after being criticized for its poor conditions and “inhumane” design.

F-House at Stateville Correctional Center, the last panopticon-style prison building in the U.S., seen in October 2018.

Editor’s note (Dec. 16, 2022): We updated this story to remove the name of Juan Rodriguez’s ex-wife, at her request.

After Juan Rodriguez tested positive for COVID-19 last week at Stateville Correctional Center, he told his wife that guards moved him to a cell inside Stateville’s notorious F-House, which officials closed in 2016 citing health and safety concerns.

Yellow-brown water ran from the cell’s sink faucet, he said. And since authorities didn’t give Juan Rodriguez cleaning supplies, he cleaned mold off the walls with a bar of soap he had purchased at the prison commissary, according to his wife, who asked that her name not be used.

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“COVID-19 is an upper respiratory illness, but they’re moving sick people to a cell house with mold?” she said in an interview with Injustice Watch. “No human should be in there.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections reopened the controversial housing unit, known as the “roundhouse,” on May 5 and is now quarantining about 70 men at F-House who have either tested positive for COVID-19, are awaiting test results, or who work in the facility, according to a department spokeswoman.

Stateville is both the agency’s most crowded prison and the epicenter of its COVID-19 crisis. The department reported that 150 inmates and 75 staff had tested positive for the virus as of Monday, more than at any other Illinois prison.

Twelve incarcerated people at Stateville have died from the virus, according to WBEZ.

The department spokeswoman said that officials reopened F-House temporarily “to ensure men incarcerated at the facility are safely quarantined or isolated” and mitigate COVID-19’s spread. She added that “necessary repairs were made to the housing unit” and that the Illinois Department of Public Health had inspected it.

F-House was built in 1922 in the circular panopticon style, with a single guard tower in the center, surrounded by four tiers of cells. The building’s design garnered discipline for the way it reverberated and amplified noise, causing a loud cacophony at all hours. It was the last panopticon prison building to close in the U.S., department officials said.

In 2011, the prison watchdog group John Howard Association wrote that the building seemed “perfectly engineered to induce extreme aggravation, anxiety and stress among inmates and staff,” whom the group contended “seemed to universally despise the building.”

Before it closed in November 2016, F-House was also plagued by cockroaches, mold, leaks, bad plumbing, and chipped paint, according to the group. Corrections officials estimated at the time that it needed more than $10 million worth of maintenance. All those issues remain today, said Jenny Vollen-Katz, John Howard’s executive director.

“When they shut F-House down, it’s not like they went in and improved it or cleaned it all up,” she said. “One of the reasons it was shut down was because the conditions inside the roundhouse were so terrible and inhumane.”

On the other hand, Vollen-Katz added, “if they’re using this unit to spread people out to reduce exposure and contagion, it’s hard to argue with that.”

But prisoners and their loved ones have said the men in F-House who are positive and negative are still using the same showers and stairwells and interacting with the same guards.

Jamal Bakr was transferred to F-House last Wednesday, though he had tested negative for COVID-19, his wife Donna Bakr told Injustice Watch. While talking to her on the phone on Monday, Jamal Bakr said he could see the same officers who he has come in contact with interacting with men who he knew had tested positive, according to Donna Bakr.

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fully thought out,” she said. “You have people that have tested positive, and you have people who have tested negative, why have them interact?”

The corrections department spokeswoman said prisoners who have tested positive and those who are awaiting tests or have tested negative are being “sufficiently distanced” from one another.

Before prison officials transferred Jamal Bakr, they told him to bring his mattress because they didn’t have enough in F-House, his wife said. She also said guards had been passing out bottled water to the incarcerated men held there, according to her husband’s account.

“They’re not going to tell them that the water in the building isn’t safe,” she said.

Both Donna Bakr and Juan Rodriguez’s wife said that one of the most challenging parts about prison officials moving their husbands to F-House is the lack of technology there, which makes it harder to communicate during the COVID-19 crisis.

Prison officials have canceled their video visits because F-House doesn’t have the proper equipment. And the women’s husbands, who only get one call a day, can no longer send emails on their tablets because the unit lacks wireless internet.

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