Roosevelt Myles and Tonya Crowder

Roosevelt Myles, an inmate at Illinois River Correctional Center who has been waiting 20 years for a wrongful conviction hearing that was granted by the appellate court in 2000, has now earned enough “good time” sentencing credit to leave prison in August. Under different circumstances, for a man who has already spent 27 years behind bars for a murder he says he did not commit, waiting just a few more months to get to live with his fiancée and begin a career as a paralegal might have been tolerable.

But now, with COVID-19 already causing major outbreaks in other correctional facilities in the state, any extra time spent in prison could be a major health risk for Myles, and his attorneys are petitioning the governor to grant him an immediate release. In a letter submitted to Governor J.B. Pritzker and the state’s Prisoner Review Board on April 3, Myles’s pro bono lawyers, Jennifer Bonjean and Ashley Cohen, wrote, “it is your obligation as Governor to protect the citizens of the State of Illinois, get ahead of the inevitable COVID-19 spread, and assist in saving this innocent man’s life before it is too late.”

As soon as the novel coronavirus pandemic started to upend life across the country, advocates began to raise the alarm that prisons and jails—given the crowded conditions, aging inmate populations, and often inferior health care—could easily become petri dishes for the infection if significant precautions were not taken, including releasing as many inmates as possible. Now, in Illinois, worst-case scenarios have already become reality: Cook County Jail is the site of the nation’s largest outbreak, with over 300 positive cases and three deaths among detainees so far. The state prison system has reported 146 cases among inmates, most of them at Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet, where 124 incarcerated people have tested positive for the virus and two have died.

While the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) insists that it is taking all possible measures to protect inmates and staff, some incarcerated people have reported having limited access to hand sanitizer and other items they need. Illinois River, where Myles is, about 30 miles west of Peoria, has yet to see any cases, but inmates and advocates are still concerned that the virus could make its way inside. Myles and his fellow inmates are currently on a precautionary quarantine lockdown, with limited access to phones, work canceled, and all outside visits suspended.

Myles, who is 55, is particularly worried about how the virus would affect him if he gets it, given that he has diabetes and high blood pressure and has already had pneumonia twice in his life. “I’ve been looking at the news. It’s bad out there,” Myles wrote me via the prison’s e-mail service at the end of March. “I’m not overreacting—if I’m infected with COVID-19, there’s a strong chance that it may become fatal to me.” When he was first placed in lockdown, reading news about the virus with no way to check on his family and friends, he became so worried that he ended up with an ulcer.

In the fall, I wrote about Myles’s long struggle to have his wrongful conviction overturned and his efforts to maintain his relationship with his fiancée of eight years, Tonya Crowder, even as he remains incarcerated. In 1996 Myles was convicted of the 1992 murder of 16-year-old Shaharian Brandon and sentenced to 60 years in prison. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of one witness, a teenager at the time, who changed her story multiple times before trial. She now says that she was coerced into implicating Myles by a police detective who has been accused of misconduct in numerous cases.

Credit: Paula Jackson

In 2000 the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Myles deserved a new hearing on his conviction because his trial lawyer did not call three witnesses who could have provided an alibi. Myles was then assigned a lawyer to file another post-conviction petition, but his public defender was negligent, and his case languished for years in an astonishing delay. The judge assigned to the case, Dennis J. Porter, did not push Myles’s lawyer to move the case forward. Myles is now represented by civil rights lawyer Bonjean, but early last year, Judge Porter denied Bonjean’s petition for Myles and refused to hold a hearing. Bonjean immediately appealed; currently the case is pending before the Illinois Appellate Court.

Like other inmates sentenced before 1998, Myles has been allowed to have one day taken off his sentence for every day served with good behavior. In January, a new law went into effect that granted additional sentencing credit to eligible inmates based on participation in certain programs. After a lot of effort navigating the IDOC bureaucracy, Myles learned last week that he had been approved for 15 months of additional time off his sentence because of his experience in correctional industry work programs and his paralegal certification. Those 15 months put his release date in August. He’s also hoping to receive three or four months of credit that can be granted at the discretion of the director of IDOC (currently Rob Jeffreys), which could help him get released as soon as May. (Bonjean’s letter to the governor, however, warns that the pandemic could delay the processing of his request for additional credit.) Meanwhile, Governor Pritzker has signed an executive order allowing the IDOC director to release certain vulnerable inmates on medical furloughs. So far, Pritzker has also used his clemency power to release 17 individuals since March 11, according to the Tribune.

Bonjean says that they are trying any and all avenues to get Myles released as soon as possible, including additional sentence credit from Jeffreys, the medical furlough program, and clemency from the governor. “Whether Mr. Myles is released next month or in several months, the remainder of his sentence should be commuted in light of his enhanced risk for COVID complications should he become infected,” his petition reads. Bonjean and Cohen cite his compelling innocence claim, his underlying health conditions, and his record as a model citizen as reasons the governor should move to grant his request. But the process takes time.

“They need certain documentation, and getting documentation from your clients who have no access because they’re all on lockdown is difficult,” says Bonjean. “I know there are people who are working hard on their end to process these petitions, but it’s slow going.”

The Prisoner Review Board—which is tasked with making recommendations to the governor regarding clemency—and the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Myles’s petition. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, which will have an opportunity to weigh in on Myles’s release, said in an e-mailed statement that it is “urgently and thoroughly reviewing matters on a case-by-case basis, including cases presented for emergency bond hearings as well as petitions for clemency during this unprecedented crisis.”

Meanwhile, Myles and Crowder are taking advantage of the opportunity to talk over video chat when they can—Illinois inmates are now receiving one free video visit a week in light of in-person visit suspensions. Crowder was in good spirits when she called me last week from Peoria, where she’s quarantining with her son and daughter. She hopes that Myles will be able to join them soon.  v