The Illinois Department of Corrections has indefinitely suspended visitations at all state prisons in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among guards and inmates.
“Our top priority is the health and safety of those who live and work in our facilities, and we are hopeful this policy change will be short-lived,” a department spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
In the meantime, the department is providing inmates with two 20-minute phone calls and one 15-minute video visit. “We also encourage families to write to their incarcerated loved ones as often as possible,” the spokeswoman said.
Attorneys are allowed to visit prisons but will be screened upon arrival.
The move to ban visitations comes days after criminal justice activists called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to release as many elderly and medically frail inmates as possible to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among vulnerable groups.
Jennifer Soble, executive of the Illinois Prison Project, said banning visitations “is not even a Band-Aid — it’s a red herring.”
“As a practical matter, the prisons remain incredible porous regardless if visitation is suspended or not. This just makes sure that marginalized and vulnerable people are more cut off from their support systems,” she said.
Soble noted there are 8,600 correctional officers that come into prisons every day and around 2,000 inmates go in and out of hospitals outside prisons each month.
“It’s a question of when, not if, the coronavirus will show up in prisons,” she said.
Public health experts nationwide have been sounding the alarm on the likelihood of the coronavirus spreading in prisons, where inmates more often than not share bunk beds, bathrooms, laundry and eating areas.
“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.
The state Corrections Department said it is taking preventive measures to prevent an outbreak in its prisons such as making hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap, and cleaning supplies available to all staff and incarcerated individuals.
But Soble said these measures are stopgap solutions at best.
“It’s possible that this will delay the inevitable, but not forever,” she said. “Thousands of elderly and sick people remain in IDOC, and when the coronavirus hits, those people will overwhelm our hospitals. That’s not going to help us flatten the curve.”
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.