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Pritzker should release elderly, ailing prisoners from state jails amid coronavirus outbreak, activists say

There are nearly 7,800 incarcerated people in state prisons age 50 or older. Advocates say many, if not most, of them could be safely released to the public.

Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Ill.
AP file photo

Criminal justice advocates are calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to release as many elderly, disabled and medically frail inmates from Illinois prisons as possible before they may be affected by the new coronavirus.

There were nearly 7,800 state prisoners age 50 or older at the end of 2019, making up around 20% of the Illinois prison population, state figures show.

And while the Illinois Department of Corrections doesn’t keep a tab on how many disabled, medically frail inmates it holds, experts say it’s into the hundreds.

Pritzker should review all of their cases “with an eye toward providing medical furloughs or compassionate release to as many of them as possible,” according to a letter by the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison hand-delivered to the governor’s downtown Chicago office Thursday afternoon.

“Doing so would not only protect them, but also other incarcerated people, officers, and staff by decreasing the strain on resources within the prisons once the virus hits,” the letter reads. “We hope that particular consideration will be given to the high percentage of elderly women and men currently in prison who have already served decades behind bars.”

The letter calls on Pritzker to “move swiftly” as any chance of saving vulnerable inmates from contracting the virus would have to happen before it’s detected in prisons.

“Ordering a review would not commit you to releasing people. But a release cannot happen prior to a review, and a thorough review cannot be accomplished overnight. It would need to begin almost immediately,” the letter says.

Pritzker’s office has not responded to requests to comment.

Larry Barrett hands a letter to the Governor Pritzker’s secretary calling on him to release many elderly and frail inmates from state prisons amid the coronavirus outbreak at his office in the Thompson Center, Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Larry Barrett hands a letter to the Governor Pritzker’s secretary calling on him to release many elderly and frail inmates from state prisons amid the coronavirus outbreak at his office in the Thompson Center, Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The call to release the inmates comes days after Iran temporarily released about 70,000 prisoners in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus in jails. And in Italy, the country with the most confirmed new cases of the coronavirus in the world, riots have engulfed several prisons as the country suspended visitation rights for inmates.

“We’ve all been told to socially distance ourselves to prevent the spread of the virus. Well, there’s no such thing as social distancing in prison,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center and one of around 1,600 co-signers of the letter sent to Pritzker.

Mills said Pritzker should free prisoners who are too old or too sick to care for themselves as they pose no serious threat to public safety.

“What we’re suggesting is that the governor use his powers to look at all those people and let them go if there’s not a good reason to keep them imprisoned,” he said.

Deaths from COVID-19 around the world have hit older adults hard, especially those with chronic medical conditions.

Older inmates already overburden the prison health care system in Illinois, as shown in a recent report by Dr. John Raba, an independent court-appointed monitor.

“Even if some of those elderly people contract the disease it will severely disrupt the prison health care system and bring it to its knees,” said Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project.

Soble notes that there are more than 8,600 correctional officers that come in and out of Illinois prions everyday. There are also around 2,000 elderly inmates who are housed at a hospital outside prison each month.

“It just takes one of them to bring in the virus,” she said.

Under state law the Illinois Department of Corrections has the discretion to release almost any elderly inmate who has less than 12 months left on their sentence and has already completed 25% of their court-ordered time behind bars.

“That’s more than 1,000 people that could potentially be released tomorrow without any action from governor,” Soble said.

IDOC has not responded to requests for comment.

Chicago Department of Public Health workers set up a tent outside Vaughn Occupational High School for conducting health test amid coronavirus fears, Tuesday morning, March 10, 2020.
Chicago Department of Public Health workers set up a tent outside Vaughn Occupational High School for conducting health test amid coronavirus fears, Tuesday morning, March 10, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Only around 100 elderly inmates in Illinois prisons are eligible for discretionary parole as they were put behind bars before 1978, the year Illinois abolished the practice.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, recently introduced legislation in the Illinois General Assembly that would expedite the parole process those who are terminally ill or disabled, but the bill is stuck in committee as the legislature canceled its session set for next week.

“There’s a deep irony of not having implemented policy changes that would allow us to responsibly care for people in prison for years and now that we have a chance to do so we can’t because of this pandemic,” Soble said.

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.