Reducing the number of people in crowded prisons is the only way to slow the rate of infection. Credit: NeOnBRAND / Unsplash

In mid-March, there were no cases of COVID-19 at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. By April 6, some 85 people were infected, with 29 staff members among them. Two inmates have died of complications from the virus. The infection is now spreading so rapidly through the prison that it is reasonable to expect its entire population could be suffering from the novel coronavirus before April is over. At AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, the intensive care unit is already filled with patients from Stateville. 

Across the United States, lawyers and advocates for the incarcerated have called on governors to review lists of those who are at highest risk of death from COVID-19—the elderly and infirm—and grant them clemencies or medical furloughs so that they can more safely quarantine at their family homes. Reducing the number of people in crowded prisons is the only way to slow the rate of infection. But nearly three weeks after Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered restaurants and bars closed to enact social distancing, Illinois has released only 300 prisoners from state facilities. 

Stateville holds more than 1,500 prisoners in crowded conditions, often with three to four men per cell. As the number of people with severe symptoms grows, local hospitals have become overwhelmed, prompting Pritzker to call in the Illinois National Guard. He has thus granted Stateville the distinction of being the first U.S. prison to be occupied by National Guard troops since September 1971, when guardsmen and New York state police stormed the Attica prison and killed 43 people in a blood-soaked attempt at putting down a prisoners’ rebellion. 

The National Guard is not descending on Stateville with the intention of suppressing an uprising, at least not yet. Thirty guard members have arrived to aid in providing medical treatment to the incarcerated. However, none of these 30 guard members are doctors or nurses; they are medics assigned to establish a field hospital for infected prisoners. 

“I’m coughing, I’m wheezing, I haven’t been tested for COVID, there’s several individuals in my wing that haven’t been tested for COVID and have clear symptoms of the virus,” Eugene Ross, a prisoner in segregation at Stateville, said in a voice recording delivered to members of the media by inmate advocates. Ross complained that authorities had taken measures to prevent inmates from placing phone calls to their families, that food supplies were dwindling, and that a plan was underway to move prisoners into a condemned wing of the facility that he referred to as “a torture chamber.”

“We’ve decided to undertake a hunger strike, we’re not going to eat until we gain access to our friends and families . . . until we can see the news, until the food gets better, and until we get tested for COVID,” Ross says in the recording.

Short of a concerted effort at the state and federal level to release inmates in rapid fashion, prisons like Stateville will ensure that the coronavirus curve continues to reach new peaks of infection, while prisoners suffer in already horrific conditions, stuffed three to a cell with negligible access to information or medical care.

Beyond the country’s prisons, where 2.3 million people serve extended sentences, many for nonviolent and drug-related crimes, some 650,000 Americans are held on a daily basis in municipal jails. Packed into small, often unhygienic cells, then held in large groups as they await a court hearing, many jail inmates are then released back into the general public, usually after just a few hours or days. With COVID-19 sweeping through the population, city jails could soon become the ultimate superspreaders of the virus. 

“Even with all the social distancing that we can manage on the outside, as long as we have 650,000 people concentrated in jails in our cities across the United States, we will always have this engine that will keep the pandemic peaking,” says Amanda Klonsky, a scholar of mass incarceration who has spent more than a decade as an educator in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. “It’s impossible to conduct social distancing inside a prison or jail, and people bring the virus home, whether they’re incarcerated people who’ve been released or guards coming home from a prison.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. this March, the Montana supreme court has instructed limited jurisdiction judges to “release as many prisoners as you are able, especially those being held for non-violent offenses.” Cook County courts have received no such guidance, however, at least not publicly. 

“The Illinois Supreme Court has affirmed the right to a speedy trial, but there’s been no speedy guidance [for county judges],” says Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “I’ve heard from numerous criminal defense attorneys that many judges are continuing to hold people with either no bond or on unaffordable . . . bond so they can’t pay, which results in more incarceration in the [Cook County] jail.”

A 57-year-old man who was one of the first detainees in Cook County Jail to contract COVID-19, Vada Allen, has been denied bail twice, although there are no claims that he poses a threat of violence. “There’s no allegation that Mr. Allen is a danger to anyone,” Grace says. “It seems pretty clear that the failure of the court’s bureaucracy and lack of communication is to blame for his continued incarceration.”

As of April 6 at Cook County Jail, 230 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19, and one has died of suspected complications. In addition, 92 sheriff’s office staff have tested positive. But the real numbers are likely much higher, as prisoners who are currently asymptomatic are not being tested at all. 

It is in the context of mass incarceration that coronavirus is becoming a weapon of class warfare. If prisoners remain packed in COVID-consumed prisons throughout the pandemic, or continue to rotate in and out of city jails for petty crimes, getting infected in the process, economically devastated urban areas that are disproportionately home to people of color will inevitably become epicenters of the disease, just as they have with HIV. Considering the collective shrug the country’s leadership offered as masses of blue-collar white people in deindustrialized sacrifice zones died off during the opioid crisis, it might seem hard to imagine a sudden burst of empathy among the country’s leadership for a population demonized by presidential candidates from both parties as “superpredators” and “bad hombres.”

However, Pritzker has vowed to place criminal justice reform at the top of his agenda, setting himself apart from a past generation of Democrats who collaborated with southern Republicans on prison-packing tough-on-crime policies (Joe Biden comes to mind here). That’s what makes his inaction on Stateville so mystifying. He has been willing to spend $171 million of his own fortune to defeat a fellow billionaire, yet he has so far refused to expend any political capital to head off a human rights catastrophe unfolding under his watch. 

Besides the infected inmates in county jails where local judges hold sway, there are scores of senior citizens in Illinois state prisons who are at the greatest risk of dying from the virus. Many were slapped with lengthy terms after Illinois adopted draconian sentencing guidelines during the moral panic over violent crime that swept the country in the late 1970s and ’80s. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, elderly prisoners have a recidivism rate of zero. So what’s preventing their immediate release, or that of the droves of nonviolent offenders who likely pose no threat to anyone? 

In Illinois and elsewhere, it’s up to the governors to offer medical furloughs or clemency to these people. Indeed, Pritzker has the power to save thousands of lives with the stroke of a pen. 

On April 2, a coalition of civil rights groups announced a lawsuit to compel the governor to grant medical furloughs to eligible inmates. Among those named in the suit is a 66-year-old prisoner named William Richard who has only a few months left to serve, and is confined in a 12-by-7-foot cell with three other inmates. “Stateville’s reality might have been avoided if the governor and [the Illinois Department of Corrections] had acted with the urgency and scope required to mitigate the oncoming harm,” the groups behind the lawsuit lamented.

With each day that passes, the crisis at Stateville grows more dire. In an April 3 e-mail to prison reform advocates, an inmate named Lonnie Smith described fellow prisoners developing symptoms at a terrifying pace. Little information passes through prison walls, small bars of soap have mostly run out, and a promised delivery of hand sanitizer never arrived, according to Smith. “Right now society is posing a threat to our lives by having us cluster together waiting on a viral death sentence,” his e-mail says. “I’ve never been on death row, but I feel like I’m on it right now. . . . I wasn’t sentenced to die, so why do I feel like I am on the fast track to a death sentence.”  v