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As Coronavirus Cases Surge In Illinois Prisons, Families And Advocates Demand More Action From State Leaders

COVID-19 infections in state prisons have surged far higher than during previous spikes. More than 11,000 inmates and staff have contracted coronavirus this year.

Stateville Correctional Center
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CHICAGO — Family members and community advocates held a virtual vigil Thursday night for people who have died from coronavirus while incarcerated in Illinois.

The event was organized by members of the End Illinois Prison Lockdown Coalition, who also called on Gov. JB Pritzker to take action to better protect the health of people inside prisons.

More than 7,800 people imprisoned in Illinois Department of Corrections facilities have had coronavirus, according to state data. Another 3,435 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

Recent data on the number of people who have died from COVID-19 while incarcerated was not immediately available, but a story from Injustice Watch reported 52 people had died from coronavirus while incarcerated in Illinois as of Dec. 8. Fifteen inmates and one corrections officer died in November alone, according to those figures.

In an effort to control the spread of COVID-19, Illinois prisons have restricted the movements of inmates and stopped in-person visitation. Advocates say these restrictions confine prisoners to their cells and deprive them of time outdoors where there is ventilation and space to distance.

That lockdown has created “severe mental and physical health impacts,” Drivas said.

“These torturous restrictions created a pressure cooker of stress and frustration and forced people to the breaking point,” said Chrisoula Drivas, who joined the coalition to advocate for a loved one who got sick with COVID-19 while incarcerated at Dixon Correctional Center.

At Dixon, currently incarcerating more than 1,900 people, there have been 562 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates.

There are far more COVID-19 cases in state prisons than during any previous spikes throughout the pandemic. Until early August, fewer than 700 inmates and staff at the prisons had tested positive for COVID-19, the Tribune reported. Now there are more than 11,000 confirmed cases.

Anthony Ehlers, incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, wrote a letter that was read at the vigil about his experience with the disease. Stateville was an early epicenter of the outbreak, with several people being hospitalized with COVID-19 in March and dozens of inmates and staff put in isolation.

Ehlers said he contracted COVID-19 and the lockdown restricted him to close quarters with his friend and cellmate, James Scott, who also contracted the virus and died April 20.

“He caught what I had. They should have quarantined me. … He would be alive today had they done that. Instead they left me in the cell very sick, and he was taking care of me at one point,” Ehlers said the letter.

“But I can’t help feeling guilty. It makes me ache and anger … because he didn’t need to die.”

The state must end the prison lockdown and improve access to care for those who are incarcerated, said Katrina Phidd, an organizer for the coalition.

“We must continue to apply pressure to Pritzker and remind elected officials that people in prison … are people they must protect,” she said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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