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Sick Inmate’s Wife Terrified Coronavirus Will Kill Downstate Prisoners Who Lack Supplies: ‘Every Other Cell … Someone Is Sick’

At Stateville, the woman's husband still has a cellmate who's staying with him despite his illness, she said. And staff walk around, interacting with the men who are incarcerated. "A lot of them are coughing."

Stateville Correctional Center
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CHICAGO — Two men incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center have died of coronavirus — and a Chicago woman whose sick husband is held there is worried not enough is being done to keep him safe.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used to protect her husband, said he’s already ill with what they suspect is coronavirus — but he’s receiving little care, and the Joliet prison isn’t doing enough to clean and to protect its inmates as the virus rapidly spreads there.

“Every other cell it’s like someone is sick,” she said. “Every day he hears someone calling for the medic.”

At least 56 people incarcerated at Stateville have tested positive for coronavirus, and 24 staff members have confirmed cases of the virus, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Two men who were incarcerated there have died from COVID-19, with the most recent death reported on Sunday.

Gov. JB Pritzker has said Illinois will take care of its incarcerated people just as it would anyone else during the outbreak, providing them with more cleaning supplies and medical care. He said hospitals would be forced to care for incarcerated people if they tried to avoid it.

“An incarcerated person is a person, and my administration will not be in the business of claiming one life is worth more than another,” Pritzker said last week.

But at Stateville, the detained people received just one small bottle of bleach with which to clean their cells and a tiny bar of soap, and they only receive hand sanitizer when a worker pumps it on their hands before giving them food, said the Chicago woman. They’re “absolutely not” cleaning her husband’s cell, the woman said.

Her husband tried to prepare by going to the commissary before the prison went into a lockdown, but there was no water or soap left to buy, she said.

The only protective equipment her husband has received is a mask he can’t wash, even though he’s living under quarantine, the woman said.

And the prison has stopped all visits and video calls; instead, the woman and her husband are able to speak for just 15 minutes on the phone once per day, she said. But the phone is shared between inmates — and it doesn’t appear to be cleaned between uses, she said.

Now, the woman said her husband has become ill with a fever, cough and slight congestion, and he’s lost his sense of smell and taste — all symptoms of coronavirus.

The woman’s husband hasn’t been tested for the virus, though other incarcerated people near his cell have tested positive, she said. He was taken to a clinic but then brought back to his cell, the woman said, and medical staff told her husband they don’t have to test him if he doesn’t have a significant fever.

She’s “every day worried that something could happen and I’m not able to be there, see him, help him,” the woman said. “I’m helpless.”

Pritzker has said prisons are trying to implement social distancing guidelines among incarcerated people and staff, but that has been a struggle because facilities throughout the state are old and overcrowded.

At Stateville, the woman’s husband still has a cellmate who’s staying with him despite his illness, she said. And staff walk around, interacting with the men who are incarcerated.

“A lot of them are coughing,” she said of the staff. The virus is “coming from the outside.”

She’s called the prison to complain and staff told her they’re passing out supplies to incarcerated people like her husband, the woman said, but she doesn’t believe them.

“Those guys are human beings. I’m not just for speaking for my husband …,” the woman said. “First of all, they need to supply them at least with some cleaning supplies. You have just bars between [men]. They’re gonna get sick … and some people are gonna survive and some people are not. The staff is gonna get sick.”

It’s also been difficult to have even less contact with her husband, the woman said. She and other family members of inmates are keeping touch on Facebook, trying to support each other, and they’re wondering why Illinois isn’t allowing more frequent phone calls since in-person and video visits have been shut off amid the pandemic.

Activists have called on the state to release more incarcerated people to protect them from the virus. Pritzker said the state has made efforts to release pregnant women, women with infants, non-violent offenders like shoplifters or those with drug convictions, and people with relatively shorter sentences who have served most of their time.

The state is screening those who it releases, ensuring they don’t have a history of violence — particularly domestic violence — and have a place they can live during the pandemic, Pritzker said.

So far, the state’s prison population is 1,100 people lower than it was at the start of February as a result of the releases, Pritzker said.

But the virus is still spreading quickly throughout multiple facilities. More than 234 detained people at Cook County Jail have tested positive for coronavirus, though no one there has died as of yet.

For the families of incarcerated people, those numbers instill fear.

The woman’s husband is in the midst of appealing his conviction for murder in a case he was charged with more than 16 years ago as a teenager. His appeal has been put on hold by the virus.

In the years since his conviction, the man has received an education and built a loving relationship with his wife, she said. They look forward to the day he will be released — ideally, if he can prove he was wrongfully convicted — and they can live together.

He and other people incarcerated at the prison shouldn’t have to worry about those futures being taken from them by the virus, the woman said.

“There are people there who have been there for years and have rehabilitated … . I know it’s a tough decision to make who to release … but they need to take this into consideration,” the woman said. “There are [people charged as] juveniles who have been there for 20 years and they’ve served their time and go to school.

“So many things are going on right now that … I just worry for him.”

Symptoms

Coronavirus can be deadly, but the vast majority of cases have been mild. Those most at risk from the virus are people who are elderly or who have underlying health conditions.

Symptoms of coronavirus can appear two to 14 days after a person has been exposed to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People with no symptoms may have the virus and spread it to others.

The virus spreads between people through coughing and sneezing, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The most common symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

People have also experienced body aches, nasal congestion, runny nose and sore throat, according to Harvard Medical School.

If you or someone else has difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, become confused, cannot be roused or develop a bluish face or lips, get immediate medical attention, according to the CDC.

How To Protect Yourself

Here’s what you can actually do to prevent getting ill:

  • The CDC and other officials have said people should wash their hands often, including before, during and after eating; after using the bathroom; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
    The CDC has a guide here for how to properly wash your hands. Remember: Wash with soap and water, scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • If you can’t wash your hands with soap and water, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth, with unwashed hands.
  • Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces you touch frequently, like cellphones and light switches. Here are tips from the CDC.
  • Stay home when you’re sick and avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you have to sneeze or cough with a tissue, throw it out immediately after using it, according to the CDC.

What To Do If You Think You’re Sick

Even if you’re not showing symptoms, the Chicago Department of Public Health recommends people coming from high-risk countries (here’s a CDC list) self-quarantine for 14 days after returning home.

If you do have symptoms of coronavirus, contact your primary doctor or a health care facility before going in. Explain your symptoms and tell them if you’ve come into close contact with anyone with coronavirus or traveled to an area where COVID-19 is widespread (here’s a CDC list) within the last 14 days, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

From there, the experts will work with your local health department to determine what to do and if you need to be tested for coronavirus, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

And, of course, if you think you’re sick with coronavirus, don’t risk exposing other people to the virus. Anyone who feels unwell has been ordered to stay home or risk getting a $500 fine.

Those with questions and concerns about coronavirus can call the Illinois Department of Public Health at 800-889-3931.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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