A federal judge on Friday denied a request to release some at-risk Illinois prisoners amid the coronavirus outbreak as part of a lawsuit filed last week.
The lawsuit filed by Chicago civil rights attorneys sought class-action status and looked to free what could have been thousands of inmates; it named Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Rob Jeffreys, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, as defendants.
U.S. District Judge Robert Dow acknowledged in his 48-page opinion Friday that the “stakes are high” for prisoners and their families, and prisons are “especially vulnerable” due to the “difficulty of observing social distancing and recommended hygiene practices in close quarters.”
As of Friday, 139 Illinois inmates and 93 prison staffers have tested positive for COVID-19, IDOC records show. Another 187 additional prisoners have been tested and are awaiting results. At Stateville Correctional Center alone, 118 inmates — including two who have since died — and 52 employees have confirmed cases.
The judge wrote that the prisoners are correct that immediate attention to their health and safety is urgently required, but, he added, a sweeping ruling potentially releasing 12,000 inmates is not the right initial step.
Dow added that he didn’t see proof Pritzker and other state officials “are showing deliberate indifference to the inmates’ plight or discriminating against inmates with disabilities.”
He pointed to state officials adjusting their procedures and increasing the number of inmates released daily to show other, more appropriate measures are being taken.
“[The] release of inmates requires a process that gives close attention to detail, for the safety of each inmate, his or her family, and the community at large demands a sensible and individualized release plan — especially during a pandemic,” he wrote.
Pritzker said last week that he and prison officials have worked daily with lawyers to determine what can be done to “lessen the pressure within prisons.” Among their concerns, he noted, is that inmates “have to have a place to go.”
“We want to do, I think, what activists want,” Pritzker said in comments made during his daily news conference.
Ten Illinois prisoners, most with underlying health issues and serving time for crimes ranging from murder to drug offenses, were named as plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit sought relief for people in six categories; two of those categories were those with medical conditions, and those scheduled to be released within 180 days.