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Prisoner advocacy group seeks to cut sentences for mentally ill inmates stuck in solitary confinement in Illinois prisons

The nonprofit Illinois Prison Project wants Gov. J.B. Pritzker to commute the sentences of 43 inmates.

Corey Knox, 44, stares out the window at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. Knox spent about 27 years in Illinois prisons, much of it in solitary confinement.
Corey Knox, 44, looks out a window at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. Knox spent about 27 years in Illinois prisons, much of it in solitary confinement.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The only “window” into Corey Knox’s cell was not much bigger than a business card and so scratched, the prison guards sometimes had to knock to make sure someone was inside.

Things got so bad in solitary confinement that sometimes Knox would hallucinate and hear voices.

“It was a messed-up situation,” said Knox, who spent a total of about 27 years in Illinois prisons, almost all of it solitary — or “seg,” as he calls it.

On Tuesday, the nonprofit Illinois Prison Project filed a petition with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to commute the sentences of 43 inmates, all of whom have struggled with mental illness. At one time or another, the inmates ended up in solitary confinement for misbehaving — infractions that either led to longer prison terms or the elimination of “good time.”

“Rather than recognizing these acts as desperate cries for help, the [Illinois] Department of Corrections punished our clients and hundreds of others like them by extending their incarceration.” said Jenny Soble, the Prison Project’s executive director, speaking to reporters at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law along the shores of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago.

Soble said oftentimes an inmate’s misbehavior is something as minor as spitting or throwing water at a prison guard. She said one client entered the prison system in 2006, expecting to spend 1 12 years behind bars for possession of a stolen vehicle. He remains in prison, Soble said.

“The Department of Corrections is making strides to change the way that they use solitary confinement, but those forward-looking efforts do not go far enough for our clients and those like them,” Soble said.

Ultimately, Gov. J.B. Pritzker would have to sign off on the request, Soble said.

Knox, who was diagnosed with a range of mental health issues while in prison, said he initially was put in solitary confinement for threatening a prison staffer; that meant being locked up 23 hours a day, with one hour out in the “yard” — little more than a dog “kennel,” he said. In reality, it was often a single block of five hours outside once a week, Knox said.

“It was bad when the [correctional] officers would tell you, ‘I don’t know how y’all do it. I’d have done killed myself if I was in that cell,’” Knox said.

Knox said he tried.

“By the grace of God, I’m here,” he said.

Knox has been out of prison since 2017 with the help of the Prison Project and lives in Park City. He’s had a number of odd jobs and now works in a factory packaging and cutting meat.

“If working in a freezer is what I’ve got to do to stay out of jail, I’m working in that freezer,” he said, staring at the glistening, seemingly endless expanse of Lake Michigan.