Activists continue calls for Illinois prison reforms due to state’s handling of COVID-19

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Advocates say the Illinois Department of Corrections’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons is shedding light on the need for change in how the state treats incarcerated people.

Members of Parole Illinois, a group of activists and incarcerated individuals advocating for criminal justice reform, said IDOC hasn’t done enough to ensure those in prison don’t get sick. This goes especially for Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, which was hit hard with an outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year.

About 200 of those incarcerated at Stateville had tested positive for the virus and 12 of them died, according to IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess. Nearly 80 Stateville staff had also tested positive.

While the vast majority of those in Stateville recovered, Shari Stone-Mediatore, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University who has been in contact with inmates at the prison, said many of them are "at a breaking point."

Due to the medical quarantine IDOC imposed to slow the spread of the virus, some men in Stateville told Stone-Mediatore they’re in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day. She said during the hottest time of the year it’s "sweltering" inside Stateville.

Stone-Mediatore argued the prison system is not set up to humanely treat those incarcerated, a condition the pandemic is shedding further light on. She said IDOC’s focus "needs to change from warehousing people to rehabilitating people and to prepare them to reenter in a healthy way into their communities."

"It’s just basic human decency," she said.

Stone-Mediatore said she’s heard directly from men like Howard Keller, a Parole Illinois member incarcerated at Stateville, about how they’ve felt exasperated being kept in their hot cells during the medical quarantine.

In a message sent via Stone-Mediatore, Keller likened the conditions people in prison face to that of enslaved Black people when they were taken from their homes.

"Asking me what the conditions in this place are like is like asking African slaves what the conditions were like in the bowels of those slave ships," Keller said.

Disparities in inmate releases

Restore Justice, a nonprofit group advocating for criminal justice reform, analyzed IDOC data on the number of people who had been released from prison during the first several weeks of the pandemic.

The organization concluded in a news release, "IDOC is not actually releasing many people early, and, of those released, there are startling racial inequities."

In the analysis, Restore Justice looked at the 5,938 releases from IDOC facilities between March and May of this year, according to its report. While of those individuals, 3,381 were released early, Restore Justice said that number was "insufficient to effectively reduce the prison population and protect public health."

Restore Justice concluded IDOC released inmates at a slower rate this year than it did during the same time period in 2019.

"In the face of the largest public health crisis in more than a century, the state’s response concerning its most vulnerable populations has been anemic," the organization said in its report.

The report also found IDOC was releasing white inmates early at higher rates than their African American and Latino peers.

While White people make up about 32% of the Illinois prison population, they comprised about 43% of those released early between March 1 and June 4.

For comparison, while Black people account for 54% of the state’s prison population, they made up 46% of those released early. Latino people make up about 13% of the state’s prison population and 10% of all early releases.

In a statement, IDOC acknowledged racial disparities within the criminal justice system.

"As this report and many others before it prove, the criminal justice system results in inequitable outcomes for Black and Brown people," the agency said. "That’s why this administration supports comprehensive criminal justice reform."

IDOC added it supports reforms to also address how people of color face disproportionately longer sentences than white people.

Still, Stone-Mediatore argued society needs to totally rethink the way it treats those convicted of a crime. She said there are "thousands" of people in Illinois prisons who should not be incarcerated because they are working to educate and better themselves in hopes of living a productive life.

"We can’t just shut away people and warehouse them and think it’s not going to affect the rest of us," she said. "I think COVID needs to be a wake up call."


via | The Herald-News

July 10, 2020 at 06:24AM

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