New Surge of COVID Is Spreading “Like Wildfire” in Illinois Prisons

With COVID-19 raging throughout the United States, there is a growing sense of desperation among people in prison. Pablo Mendoza, who recently got out of prison, said that those inside “are tired of the lockdown.” They spend 23.5 hours a day in their cells. They have not had visits from their loved ones for almost a year.

Those who have caught COVID and are believed to be immune get out for yard time. Others are “weighing options,” according to Mendoza: “Stay safe, or get the virus so they can get some open air. They are willing to risk it; this is the mood right now.”

Mendoza spent over a year in Lawrence Correctional Center in Illinois, where there have been more than 900 cases of COVID in January, among the highest in the state. (There are approximately 1,900 people incarcerated in the prison.)

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) recently implemented mass testing in its prisons. It was just announced that those incarcerated will get the vaccine the same time as prison guards. Yet the virus is spreading like wildfire.

Other states have been more proactive in containing the virus in jails and prisons. New Jersey began mass testing in prisons back in April 2020, utilizing saliva tests developed at Rutgers University. The New Jersey governor released some 800 people from prison through executive order at the onset of the pandemic, and through legislation another 2,000-plus people were released in November. In Massachusetts, the governor announced those incarcerated in prisons and jails would be the first to receive the vaccine.

In Colorado, a public backlash ensued after an announcement that those in prison would get the vaccine early on, prompting the governor to reverse the decision, saying there was “no way that prisoners are going to get it before members of a vulnerable population.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proclaimed that he wants to make the state a “beacon of justice for the nation.” Pritzker, a Democrat, imposed some of the most aggressive restrictions to contain COVID early on, winning the hatred of Trump supporters. Still, Pritzker has been slow in responding to COVID in prison.

A report put out by the Illinois-based advocacy organization Restore Justice documented how the state’s response to the pandemic has been “anemic.” While some 3,000 people were released following COVID, most releases were due to their sentences already or close to ending. In the months after COVID hit, Illinois was actually releasing people from prison at a slower rate than the previous year.

Those inside prisons, their families and loved ones, as well as attorneys and activists have tried to pressure Governor Pritzker to take greater action. There have been public forums on Zoom, lawsuits filed and demonstrations held. They have exposed the worsening conditions inside Illinois prisons.

At Danville Correctional Center, a prison in east Illinois, more than 800 people — about half the people incarcerated there — tested positive for COVID in early January 2021. Three have died, confirmed IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess — a man in his 40s on December 26, and two men in their 60s on January 14 and 18.

The crisis that activists warned about has now arrived. According to the IDOC, there have been more than 8,500 cases of COVID and 70 deaths among those incarcerated. Everyone I talked to with a loved one in prison believes the state is underreporting the numbers. Measures have now been taken to control COVID inside prison, but most agree the only real solution is mass release of people from an overcrowded system.

Cages Don’t Stop COVID

At the forefront of organizing against COVID in prisons has been Parole Illinois, an inside-outside prison campaign started at Stateville Correctional Center. On June 4, 2020, Parole Illinois and its allies hosted a Zoom webinar titled “Prison is the Pandemic.” Co-founder of Parole Illinois, Raúl Dorado, gave a vivid account of watching as his friends “like fish out of water gasping for air” were carried out on stretchers.

The End the Illinois Prison Lockdown Coalition is a group of activists, those incarcerated, and their loved ones working to address the IDOC’s repressive and arbitrary policies under COVID. A member of the coalition, Chrisoula Drivas, has a childhood friend at Dixon Correctional Center who she communicates with regularly. The restrictions have created a “pressure-cooker of stress and frustration,” Drivas told Truthout.

At Dixon, yard time was suspended at the end of September, and only recently reinstated for one hour, once a week. “Being outside is the safest place to be, why are the men not allowed to get fresh air?” Drivas questioned.

The coalition’s hashtag is #cagesdontstopcovid and, indeed, the lockdown did not prevent Drivas’s friend from catching COVID. He experienced shortness of breath, pressure in his chest, but no fever. It took four days to test and quarantine him. In the meantime, he continued to work, likely spreading the disease.

“IDOC and the governor have not provided a clear and consistent plan for all facilities to follow,” Drivas said, “and reporters are not asking the governor about prison during his daily COVID briefings.”

Pablo Mendoza recalled during the lockdown at Lawrence prison, he was only allowed out of his cell for 30 minutes a day. The men could make 20-minute phone calls, and then take a 10-minute shower, or vice versa. “That was the movement for the day,” said Mendoza.

For those with medical conditions, the lockdown makes it harder. Diane Chavez has a friend at Menard Correctional Center, one of the largest and oldest prisons in the state. Her friend is 59 years old, has chronic pain in his leg and needs exercise. “He used to deal with the leg pain by walking continuously,” Chavez told Truthout. But during lockdown he is not allowed access to the yard.

The man also has an undiagnosed pain in his left torso. “He receives no medical care,” Chavez said. “Doctors don’t even come close, they keep their distance, they don’t want to be there because they are afraid of catching COVID from prisoners.”

Life in Quarantine

I spoke to Raúl Dorado in mid-January 2021 on the phone from Stateville. He has been quarantined in F-House, a panopticon-style building that was shut down in 2016, and is now being used to isolate those testing positive or exposed to COVID. The living conditions in F-House are “terrible,” he said. “It’s freezing in there. There are broken windows, the wind just blows right in.”

Anyone with COVID needs lots of fluids, but in F-House, the water is undrinkable. Dorado had to purchase bottled water from commissary. But commissary spending has been cut in half, from $150 to $75 per month, significantly limiting the ability to buy necessities for basic hygiene, food to supplement the poor meals they are served and clothing to keep warm in the winter. Some don’t even have this much money to spend.

Colleen McKinney’s fiancé, incarcerated in Pinckneyville, Illinois, caught COVID and spent two weeks in quarantine. He got a bad cough and had a hard time breathing. He was given a three-day supply of Tylenol, and Mucinex. When nurses came by, “the men put their forehead up to the chuck hole” [where they pass food trays], they would check temperature and oxygen, and that was it,” McKinney told Truthout.

Letting People Go

In addition to those in prison, formerly incarcerated and loved ones speaking out, attorneys have played an important role in pushing for improved conditions. Alan Mills, an attorney at the Uptown People’s Law Center, filed a class-action case for medical care in Illinois prisons that was settled in early 2019 with the appointment of a federal monitor who is now overseeing the standard of care under the pandemic. Those incarcerated, Mills told Truthout, “are the only people the state has a constitutional obligation to treat.”

Back in August, the monitor argued that IDOC should utilize saliva tests and implement mass testing. Now after a deadly wave of COVID, the state has finally announced it will test every three days, and the IDOC website reflects a large increase in testing.

“Now the only answer is the vaccine,” Mills said, “and letting people go, of course.”

Jennifer Soble, an attorney at Illinois Prison Project, has been working to get people out of prison who are especially vulnerable to dying from the virus. She has filed 100 appeals for commutations to the governor since COVID. Of them, 22 have been granted. Most are “habitual offenders” who had been sentenced to “natural life” under harsh three-strikes laws: They include armed robberies and accessories to murder. All of the 22 people granted clemency were elderly and had spent decades in prison.

There are still many others Governor Pritzker could easily set free as the pandemic rages. Annette Douglas has been outspoken in the local media about the spike in COVID cases at Danville prison. Her son only recently got out of Danville — he sat in prison for months during COVID on a parole violation — and she has several friends there.

“I wish the governor would do something,” Douglas pleaded. “There’s no way to social distance in prison. It’s not even good for the officers. Have some compassion. It’s just inhumane.”