Illinois prisoners are left vulnerable to COVID-19 and unable to safely shelter in place; litigation will continue to fight for their lives

CHICAGO, IL (April 11, 2020) – Yesterday evening a federal judge refused an emergency request by attorneys in a class action case, Money v. Pritzker, which demanded that state officials speed the critical release of thousands of at-risk, highly vulnerable prisoners who are in danger of contracting COVID-19.  

In doing so, the Court recognized the defendants did not contest that there is “no way to make conditions safe within the congregate prison setting.” Yet, without even an evidentiary hearing, the Court denied the request for urgent action to protect some of our state’s most vulnerable.

Governor Pritzker and the IDOC have the ability to swiftly move those most vulnerable to the pandemic to quarantine safely in their homes, but have yet to do so on a meaningful level. Thus far they have transferred or released just 644 prisoners out of the more than 36,000 in custody. Failing to intervene risks the lives of many who are elderly and have significant medical problems.

In the 45-page decision, the judge finds that the lawsuit, which is in response to the swiftly spreading coronavirus epidemic in Illinois’ prisons, requests a “prisoner release order” under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. This means that a number of procedural barriers prevent the case from moving forward. The court also rejected Plaintiffs’ alternative theory, under federal habeas law, because Plaintiffs had not yet attempted to bring those claims in the state courts (many of which are currently closed or operating reduced dockets).

The decision, however, is limited to the requests for urgent, or expedited, court ordered action. The case will continue in litigation and the advocates vow to continue pressing the state to keep prisoners safe from the threat of COVID-19.

Plaintiffs are represented by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the Community Justice Civil Rights Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Illinois Prison Project, Uptown People’s Law Center, Loevy and Loevy, Equip for Equality and Carolyn Shapiro, a law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Despite this setback, the State has already taken action in response to the class action lawsuit filed on April 2. Specifically, two of the named plaintiffs have won their release since the lawsuit was filed. Gov. Pritzker also issued an Executive Order on April 6, soon after the filing of the lawsuit, expanding the ability of the Department of Corrections to medically furlough vulnerable prisoners. However, as of Friday afternoon, IDOC has yet to medically furlough a single prisoner under this Emergency Order.   

Named plaintiff in the lawsuit, James Money, of Warsaw, IL, was granted clemency on Wednesday, April 8. Money requested clemency so he could continue receiving chemotherapy for this thyroid cancer, because IDOC ceased all chemotherapy treatments last month due to the pandemic. “I’m glad to be out, where I know I can take the steps I need to make sure I’m protected. Prisoners can’t isolate when the staff are coming in every day from the world. Inside, I watched the news and would see Pritzker say ‘we’re doing this, we’re doing that,’ but you wait, and wait. And too many people are gonna get it, and people are gonna die from it. Them making us live on top of each other at a time like this when you could release people to reduce the chances, it’s wrong. I know 100 people in there who if they got it, they wouldn’t survive. It could be catastrophic,” said Money.

“We are deeply disappointed that the federal court refused to step in to protect the Constitutional right of our clients to be held in a safe environment. There are already four people dead at Stateville as a result of COVID-19. We fear that the court’s refusal to act today will sentence many more to die,” said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center.

“Many prisoners have disabilities, are elderly, or have underlying health conditions. The ongoing delays keep them in highly dangerous congregate setting, risking their lives. We have already seen the consequences of the failure to act urgently at Stateville – causing ongoing devastating harm to the prisoners who remain there, as well as placing the staff, local hospital and community at further risk. Holding our clients who are elderly and have significant medical conditions or disability in these dangerous conditions is tantamount to giving them a death sentence,” said Amanda Antholt, Senior Attorney at Equip for Equality.

“We have heard from dozens of people in IDOC custody who fear for their lives because of the COVID-19 pandemic–they describe feeling as if the world has forgotten about them. Many are elderly, close to the end of their sentence or have medical conditions that make COVID-19 especially deadly. The court’s decision is a setback and is likely to have tragic consequences for these people and their families. But this lawsuit is not over and we will continue to fight for the lives of people living behind bars,” said Vanessa del Valle, Clinical Assistant Law Professor and attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

“The court’s decision demonstrates that prisons create public health disasters. COVID-19 has just magnified this truth. Thousands of our clients could safely return to their home communities where they could remain in the legal custody of the IDOC, shelter in place and stop the spread of this deadly virus. Instead, relying on technicalities, the Court refused to order this reasonable relief.  As a result, COVID-19 is likely to continue its spread throughout the IDOC, causing great risk to the lives of people in custody, IDOC staff and communities surrounding the prison, “said Sheila Bedi, Director the Community Justice Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

The Court recognized that thousands of people in IDOC custody are at risk for serious illness and even death if COVID-19 continues to spread though IDOC prisons. Despite this fact, the emergency request for a process that would expedite the release of people particularly at risk was denied.

Without an immediate and expansive order by Governor Pritzker to force the IDOC to drastically reduce Illinois’ prison population, the novel coronavirus will not only continue to ravage the prison system, it will spread far behind prison gates. Thousands of staff enter prisons every day, each person potentially carrying the illness into the prison or back home to their own communities. Staff may unknowingly spread the infection for weeks without showing any symptoms.

“The Court’s decision ignores the very pressing threat that faces prisons like Hill and Logan, where the virus is just beginning to make its way inside,” said Sarah Grady of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law. “I fear that this decision all but guarantees further needless sickness and death of those in custody.”

Prison settings pose a particularly dangerous risk of spreading the virus with catastrophic consequences, as evidenced by the recent outbreak in Stateville Prison, that overwhelmed the St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet.

“Without immediate and substantial action, the public health disaster at Stateville will repeat itself at Dixon, Menard, and Logan. Thousands of elderly, sick, and disabled people throughout Illinois’s prisons—including those confined to wheelchairs, on dialysis, or battling cancer—are unable to take any steps to protect themselves from infection.  Most have families eager to bring them home. The Governor and IDOC should be using every tool at their disposal to release them, to keep our entire State safe,” said Jennifer Soble, Executive Director of the Illinois Prison Project.


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