At a time of pandemic, my clients keep dying

Illinois has done far too little to protect the most vulnerable people in its custody.

SHARE At a time of pandemic, my clients keep dying
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Seth Perlman/AP

I opened my email at 8:30 in the morning and my heart sank. A “dear subscriber” notification, simple and plain, told me that my client Richard was no longer in Graham Correctional Center because he was deceased. There was no further information, no condolences offered, no way to follow up. Had I not signed up for these notifications — status updates that are useful when clients are transferred from institution to institution — no one would have told me that he died.

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Richard, an affable and religious man who was bombarded by love from family and friends, was 71 when he died. When I met him earlier this year, he had served 37 years of a natural life sentence for robbing a grocery store in Champaign, Illinois, one of hundreds of mostly Black men condemned to die in prison on his “third strike.” He never hurt anyone, in that case or in any other. While in prison, he dedicated his life to his fellow prisoners, to his family, and to God. He studied the Bible and became an ordained minister. Trusted by both incarcerated people and correctional officers alike, Richard worked with the assistant warden and the prison chaplain.

When Richard died, a commutation petition seeking his release was sitting on the governor’s desk. He left behind seven brothers and sisters, each of whom was praying desperately for his return home.

The email coldly informing me of Richard’s death was the fourth I have received since COVID-19 took hold of the Illinois Department of Corrections. My clients keep dying.

My clients keep dying even though many people in Illinois care about people in prison, because we have a legal system that does not. Our legal system does not care if an incarcerated person is sick or dying; Illinois is one of only a handful of states that does not have a functioning system to release the terminally ill or the permanently disabled. Illinois has abolished parole, does not allow for mid-sentence review, and has made it impossible for many incarcerated people to reduce their sentences through good behavior. Although Richard was a model prisoner, although he was elderly, although he was very sick at the time that he died, there were no mechanisms in place to allow him to return to his family.

My clients keep dying even though they are fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and friends, because they have been rendered invisible by a system that discounts their humanity. Long ago abandoned by a criminal legal system that has used physical separation as an excuse for systemic neglect, my clients have nonetheless managed to find hope, inspiration, and beauty in the world. Some are artists who create mesmerizing pictures and breathtaking verse. Some are theologians who quote Scripture as easily as their own birthdays. Some are political analysts who spend legal calls discussing current events as easily as any political pundit. All remain shrouded in darkness, trapped behind a physical wall that blocks their voices, their stories, their light.

My clients keep dying even though they had pending requests for release before decision makers in Springfield, because Illinois has done far too little to protect the most vulnerable people in its custody. COVID-19 has spread like wildfire throughout Illinois’ aged and sick prison population, where prison officials have not acted quickly enough to protect medically vulnerable people from infection. COVID-19 has made our grossly inadequate prison health care system even worse; before the pandemic, two thirds of the deaths in Illinois prisons systems were preventable, the result of medical neglect. I shudder to think how many more preventable deaths have occurred in the pandemic’s wake.

My clients keep dying needless, senseless deaths. Until we finally value the weight of their lives and treat them with the dignity they deserve, they will continue to die.

Jennifer Soble is the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project

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