2 Illinois prisons under lockdown after confirmed cases of the coronavirus

Two correctional officers and an inmate at Stateville Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19. | Sun-Times file

The Corrections Department to release some inmates at higher risk of contracting the virus, governor’s office says.

Illinois is considering releasing some people from state prisons as the correction systems placed two facilities on lockdown after officers and inmates tested positive for coronavirus.

The governor’s office and the Corrections Department is working to “prioritize the release of older or vulnerable residents while ensuring public safety by thoroughly reviewing each resident’s activities before and during their stay at an IDOC facility,” a spokesman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker said late Wednesday.

Stateville Correctional Center in suburban Crest Hill and Sheridan Correctional Center, which is about 70 miles southwest of Chicago, are under two-week lockdowns.

Two correctional officers and an inmate at Stateville tested positive for the virus. A contract worker at Sheridan is also sick with COVID-19.

“The two Stateville correctional officers are recovering at home and the individual who is incarcerated is isolated and recovering in the hospital,” the governor’s office said Wednesday.

Anyone at Stateville who might have been exposed to the virus is being quarantined. Staff and inmates at the Sheridan facility had “low to medium risk for potential exposure,” the governor’s office said.

Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice Illinois, a criminal justice organization based in Evanston, said families of those inside have been bracing for the worst.

“We’ve been hearing for the past [two weeks] from family members that have been crying out for help for their loved ones. This validates what we’ve been fearing all along,” she said.

“Prisoners are sitting ducks because they can’t choose to eat the food that they’re only getting at the hands of correctional officers. Prisoners literally sleep on top of one another. There’s absolutely no safe way to socially distance in prison,” she said.

Cates said the best way to avoid Stateville and other prisons from becoming overwhelmed with cases of COVID-19 is to release as many prisoners as possible who don’t pose threats to public safety.

“Once people start coming down with COVID-19 at Stateville and other prisons, they’re going to end up at hospitals nearest them, and will be vying for the same respirators that people in the community need,” she warned.

In a letter dated March 17, more than a dozen legal organizations including the ACLU of Illinois and the Shriver Center on Poverty Law called on Pritzker to immediately release inmates within four months of being let out.

“These individuals have already worked with prison staff and those outside to confirm that they will be returning to a confirmed home site, and have release plans,” the letter stated.

The organizations also called on Pritzker to release all individuals with viable clemency petitions and those in custody awaiting parole revocation hearings.

Two weeks ago, the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison urged the governor to release as many elderly, disabled and medically frail inmates as possible.

Meantwhile, 17 detainees at Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, officials said Wednesday. The jail reported its first two cases of COVID-19 earlier this week when two incarcerated people tested positive.

Both men — 42 and 18 — were placed into isolation cells to mitigate the virus’ spread inside the 5,306-person jail complex.

Last week, Cook County Jail received court orders to release about 100 “highly vulnerable” inmates who were at high-risk for contracting COVID-19. The order came after Dart banned all visitors from the jail, and Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans suspended most civil and criminal cases for 30 days.

Contributing: Andy Grimm

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