Credit: Ye Jinghan

This article was co-published with the Prison Journalism Project.  

Just as the coronavirus is spreading again throughout the country, people at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois have been getting sick too. 

On December 31, a team of officers escorted medical staff from outside to administer COVID-19 tests to all the prisoners here. When they came back on January 2 to administer another round of tests, an outside tester told me that the last round had resulted in 140 prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19. 

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections’ (IDOC) website, on Monday, January 10, Stateville had 410 confirmed positive cases among its incarcerated population—the second highest number in the state—and 106 cases among staff, which was the highest number in the state. The prison’s official website, which was last updated a year ago, said there were 1,091 people housed here.

In an e-mail on Tuesday to Prison Journalism Project (PJP), a spokeswoman for the corrections department confirmed that Stateville was “one of 23 IDOC facilities currently responding to COVID-19 outbreaks.” IDOC also updated its COVID-19 tracking data on Tuesday evening to 206 confirmed positive cases among the incarcerated and 108 among the staff. 

I believe the likely trigger is a Christmas party that Stateville staff held in Woodridge, Illinois. I heard that over 100 staff members who had attended the party subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. They came to work and passed it onto their coworkers as well as the men they are supposed to be caring for. 

Even now, the prison is not quarantining those prisoners who tested positive, even though there is a mostly empty cellhouse—E House—in which they could be placed. They are instead leaving them where they are. If my cellmate tests positive and I do not, I am still forced to stay in the cell with him. This violates every recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and needlessly jeopardizes the health and safety of both staff and prisoners. 

IDOC’s spokeswoman said in her e-mail statement to PJP that the prison was not isolating individuals because the number of positive cases throughout the facility has made it difficult to do so. Most cases are asymptomatic, she said, and those most medically vulnerable have been placed in isolation. 

We, in prison, are completely dependent on the state to keep us healthy and safe. We do not have the freedom to take care of ourselves. In the past two years, more than 30 men have died from COVID-19 at Stateville including my best friend and cellmate James Scott. That is roughly a 3 percent mortality rate, higher than the national average. 

Many of these men were immunocompromised and died as a result of not being quarantined, separated, or cared for properly.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker mandated that all state employees be vaccinated last August, but employees of IDOC and their union have fought the vaccination order. Some of them have refused to get vaccinated, putting our lives in jeopardy. According to IDOC, 67 percent of staff at Stateville Correctional Center have received a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 85 percent of those incarcerated there.

I reside in C-House on gallery six. Unbeknownst to me, several men in my general area had tested positive for COVID-19. When we went to use the shower, these men were allowed to go too. 

We were not informed of the situation, so we were not given a chance to look after our own health and safety. Had I known, both my cellmate and I would have elected not to go to the shower at all. IDOC staff knowingly put us in a situation where we were in direct contact with prisoners with COVID-19.  

These prisoners use the same phones that we do. The phone is passed from cell to cell, prisoners touch it, breathe into it when they talk, and then they pass it on to others to use. 

We do not have access to bleach or disinfectant to sanitize the phones, and we do not have hand sanitizer or any other cleaning product to keep our hands clean. The inmate commissary does not sell bleach wipes, baby wipes, or hand sanitizer. Even though CDC guidelines stress the importance of washing your hands, we are being denied soap. 

The IDOC spokeswoman said in her e-mailed response to PJP that cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers were distributed to prisoners twice daily. 

We are also barely getting fed; bread has become a luxury and a treat.

Even though we are in the midst of an outbreak, we are only on a quasi-lockdown status. IDOC staff continues to let every prisoner with a job out of their cell to work. Most men are unmasked and ungloved, performing tasks including passing food trays and passing out bagged water. 

When one prisoner was asked why he did not have a mask or gloves, he responded, “They [the prison staff] won’t give me any.” The IDOC spokeswoman said in her e-mailed response that individuals in custody receive a new N95 mask weekly.

Staff also walk around maskless and gloveless, passing out COVID-19 along with mail and meals.  

Tensions here are rising, and the prison is on the edge. Men have been protesting. The entire C-House refused their food trays. Some men have declared hunger strikes. Others have spoken openly to staff about killing themselves. 

Many guys here are vaccinated, but no one wants COVID-19. There are also still some unvaccinated and immunocompromised men here with diabetes and cancer. 

After being exposed to men with COVID-19, I now have COVID-19 again. I feel terrible and very sick. We need people to fight for us. We need people to speak up before more men die, before it’s too late.

Additional outside reporting was contributed by the PJP Team.