IL-CHEP Letter to Governor J.B Pritzker on Coronavirus in Illinois Prisons
***This letter was written by the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (IL-CHEP). We presented it to the governor, cc'ing all state legislators, on Thursday March 12. We continue welcoming signatures of individuals and organizations. We especially encourage individuals with a connection to Illinois' incarceration system to sign on.***

Dear Governor Pritzker,

We thank you for issuing a disaster proclamation on Monday, March 9 for the state of Illinois. We fully support the efforts you outlined during the announcement saying, “our priority is getting ahead and staying ahead in our response, and doing so with the safety of our most vulnerable residents at the core of our preparedness.” We are writing to you as a collective that is concerned over Illinois’ most vulnerable residents who are incarcerated and employed in our prisons and jails.

Please consider immediately ordering a review of all people in Illinois prisons and jails who are elderly or infirm, with an eye toward providing medical furloughs or compassionate release to as many of them as possible.

Prisons in particular are known incubators and amplifiers of infectious diseases. Once a virus like the one causing COVID 19 enters a prison, it is almost certain to infect a significant proportion of the incarcerated population and employees. In China, where the virus originated, hundreds of people in prison have already been diagnosed as positive for COVID 19.

The good news is that the death rate for COVID 19 appears to be low among healthy people under the age of 70, with many people asymptomatic.  

Conversely, the death rate among the elderly and those with pre-existing health issues is particularly high. People with cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hepatitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney diseases, and cancer are especially susceptible. Twenty percent of the population in Illinois prisons are elderly.

Were the CoronaVirus to infect a given prison population while simultaneously raging in the outside world and pressing hospitals to their limits—which is likely to be the case—the demographics of our state’s prisons means that deaths among incarcerated populations would be difficult to avoid. In addition, incarcerated people as a group are likely to be given lower priority when medical services become scarce in the broader community.  

We are, therefore, asking you to consider immediately ordering a review of all people in Illinois prisons and jails who are elderly or infirm, with an eye toward providing medical furloughs or compassionate release to as many of them as possible. 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. 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.

Other countries with high incarceration rates where COVID 19 is present have already been forced to reckon with the special problems presented by prisons and jails. For example, Iran announced last week that it was releasing 54,000 incarcerated people in an effort to combat the spread of the virus in that country’s facilities.

We ask you to move swiftly. In order for any release program to be effective at lowering the threat to vulnerable populations and others, it would have to happen before the virus is detected in our prisons and jails. 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.

In addition, there are other ways to mitigate the spread of COVID 19 within prisons and decrease their potential to be reservoirs of disease. These include making accurate information about the virus available to incarcerated individuals as a matter of priority and distributing soap to them for free. We would be happy to discuss any of these approaches with you in greater detail.

In that vein, along with this letter, we are sending the following letters to express our concern for incarcerated people in Illinois (found in Appendices A,B, and C):
A) To the Prisoner Review Board, asking them to expedite the granting of good time credits to bring the overall prison population to the level the system was built for, so that the medical staff will not be overrun in the midst of an outbreak
B) To Illinois State’s Attorneys, to ask that we bypass jail admissions in all possible cases, and test individuals who we deem necessary to jail
C) To each of Illinois' prison wardens and county sheriffs, that they work with their facility’s Infection Control Nurse to develop specific protocols for how their facility would respond to a positive case of COVID 19 that we recommend include:
A provision for quarantining anyone who tests positive for the virus at a hospital, not at the prison or jail
A commitment that at no point will a facility be locked down or closed off to outsiders to be considered in their entirety as places of “quarantine”. Family members and lawyers must maintain access to their clients and loved ones.

However, first and foremost, we hope you will undertake a review of the prison and jail population in Illinois for the purpose of identifying those elderly and infirm individuals who are at greatest risk of dying from COVID 19, and releasing them as a matter of urgency.

Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely yours,

The undersigned.

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