Civil rights attorneys launch legal challenge to free prisoners at risk of coronavirus

The effort includes a proposed class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court, naming Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Rob Jeffreys, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, as defendants.

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Stateville Correctional Center

Stateville Correctional Center

Sun-Times file

Chicago civil rights attorneys launched a legal fight on multiple fronts Thursday, hoping to free what could be thousands of Illinois prisoners at risk of contracting the coronavirus behind bars. 

It appears to be the most serious legal challenge related to the coronavirus outbreak in Illinois since the pandemic disrupted the norms of daily life. It involves a proposed class-action lawsuit filed in federal court that accused Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois Department of Corrections Director Rob Jeffreys of “not acting with sufficient urgency.”

“Without intervention from this court, people are going to die unnecessarily,” it said. 

Pritzker said Thursday 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 are named as plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. They are serving sentences for crimes ranging from murder to drug offenses, records show. The lawsuit also describes underlying health issues for most of them. 

It seeks relief for prisoners in six categories, ranging from people with serious underlying medical conditions that put them at particular risk of serious harm or death from the coronavirus, to people who are scheduled to be released within 180 days.

One category also includes people with less than 90 days left to serve on a sentence for a Class 1 or Class X offense.

In all, lawyers estimated Thursday that roughly 13,000 prisoners would wind up having their cases reviewed, if the legal challenge is successful.

Beyond the class-action lawsuit, the challenge also involves a petition for habeas corpus and a direct petition to the Illinois Supreme Court. 

Attorneys and advocates involved in the effort include the Loevy & Loevy law firm, the Uptown People’s Law Center, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Black Lives Matter Chicago, the Chicago Torture Justice Center, the Community Justice & Civil Rights Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, the Illinois Prison Project and Equip for Equality. 

The issue might not move through the courts as fast as lawyers hoped. Though they asked for a hearing Friday to seek the release of some of the prisoners, U.S. District Judge Robert Dow instead gave Pritzker and Jeffreys until Monday to respond. If a hearing is held, Dow said, it would likely occur by phone April 10. 

So far, there are 52 Illinois prisoners with confirmed cases of the virus, and 187 additional prisoners who have been tested and are awaiting results, records show. But the class-action lawsuit largely points to the troubles at Stateville Correctional Center, where 48 inmates have tested positive. Officials announced the first confirmed coronavirus case there March 25, the lawsuit noted. Five days later, it said, St. Joseph Hospital was “overwhelmed” by inmates suffering from the effects of the virus.

One Stateville inmate has died, and the Illinois National Guard sent 30 service members to help with medical care there.

Advocates sent a letter to Pritzker on March 17 seeking the release of individuals “who can be released from custody in a way that is consistent with public safety,” according to the lawsuit. It also alleges that, even before the outbreak, “IDOC’s medical care program was ill-equipped to meet the medical needs of prisoners.”

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