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COVID-19 cases, deaths surging again in Illinois prisons

Between mid-August and mid-October, the cumulative number of inmate infections more than tripled and total staff cases more than doubled


Stateville Correctional Center personnel pull carts of hand sanitizer and bars of soap on April 24, 2020.

Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

By Christy Gutowski
Chicago Tribune

As a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly through Illinois prisons this fall, 73-year-old Watson Gray made another plea to be released from Dixon Correctional Center, where new infections were rising.

Gray had lived behind bars for more than 40 years, serving a life sentence for hiring a relative to kill his business partner in 1978.

In the decades that followed, he tried to improve himself in prison, his lawyer said, working as a barber, a teacher and paralegal. He mentored younger men and ran an inmates’ chapter of the Jaycees charity, as well as other prison programs.

Citing his age and poor health, Gray’s lawyer made a final plea for mercy dated Nov. 5. A day later, Gray died of complications related to COVID-19.

Gray is one of at least 59 incarcerated people who have died since March after becoming infected with the new coronavirus in Illinois’ custody — a death toll that has nearly doubled since November, state data through Dec. 21 shows. One staff member — a 64-year-old nurse near retirement — also died.

Advocates for prisoners’ rights say the state’s delays in broadening staff testing, releasing thousands of medically vulnerable or other nonviolent prisoners and better enforcing a staff mask mandate have led to widespread infections and more deaths.

The latest surge has far exceeded any previous peaks inside the Illinois Department of Corrections since the start of the pandemic.

To put the numbers in perspective, there were fewer than 700 known infections of inmates and staff across IDOC from March to early August, when the latest surge began. Since then, the total number of infections has risen by more than 9,000 cases, state data shows. In total, nearly 10,000 inmates and staff have tested positive.

“This is absolutely a failure by the state,” said Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project. “There is no question that COVID was going to make it into the prisons. The tragedy is the number of people who have become sick and died. That tragedy was preventable.”

At a recent state Senate committee hearing, acting IDOC Director Rob Jeffreys acknowledged the high numbers, which he blamed in part on increased testing and said mirrors state and national trends. He said the department has responded aggressively to a challenging public health crisis that has yet to yield.

Jeffreys said the IDOC follows federal and state public health pandemic guidelines. In addition to providing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, the department long ago halted in-person visits, imposed a staff mask mandate and restricted prisoners to their cells with few exceptions, such as showering.

Earlier this month, the state began regularly testing all prison employees whether or not they have symptoms. The testing is expected to be in place systemwide by late January. Officials also said they are doing more to hold staff accountable if they go unmasked at work.

Illinois has granted the early release of about 3,000 incarcerated people since March, according to IDOC data. But a coalition of advocacy groups that sued the state over the issue said the IDOC should free thousands more who are either old, infirm, nonviolent or near the end of their sentences.

The issue of early releases is a Catch-22 for Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The advocates accuse the governor of dragging his feet in the face of a pandemic, putting prisoners and staff at greater risk. But some Illinois House Republicans have criticized his administration for releasing prisoners who committed violent crimes and for not being more transparent.

A new point of contention is where prisoners will be on the vaccine distribution list. Some say they should be vaccinated with the same urgency as others in congregate settings, such as nursing homes. Staffers are expected to be prioritized with others who are either in the health care or essential worker fields.

Jeffreys said Friday that with the anticipated vaccinations and mitigation strategies, he hopes “to put a stop to this virus inside our facilities” by late January.

Many inmates, relatives and recently freed men interviewed by the Tribune agreed that access to masks and cleaning supplies has improved since earlier this year, when there was a national shortage. But they described widespread illness, unsanitary conditions and struggles to get tested and receive adequate medical care.

Anthony Ehlers, who is serving life at Stateville Correctional Center for a 1992 murder, said he was sick in March and likely infected his longtime cellmate, James Scott. A 58-year-old cancer survivor who had been in custody since he was a teenager, Scott died in April.

“Our lives matter,” Ehlers said in an email. “Even if they matter to no one but us.”

The first wave: Stateville

The IDOC publishes daily updates about positive cases and testing on its website. It does not, however, include details about hospitalizations, contact tracing or fatalities.

Through public records and interviews, the Tribune identified the first 50 inmates who died in the pandemic. The majority were nonwhite, with 24 listed as Black. All 50 were men. They ranged in age from 35 to 80, with a median age of 62.

The epicenter of IDOC outbreaks in the first wave was at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, where 12 prisoners died in 4\u00bd weeks. A 13th Stateville inmate died in August.

Many of these men were convicted of horrific acts of violence, often in their youth. At Stateville, all but three who died were serving life sentences for murder. The first, Russell Sedelmaier, was convicted of a 2005 double homicide in Buffalo Grove. Sedelmaier died March 29 at age 59.

Five days later, a 65-year-old sex offender from Rockford, Larry Bourbon, succumbed to the virus in his prison bunk. His cellmate filed a written grievance seeking an investigation into the staff’s handling of the matter.

In the grievance, Tommy Ryburn, 61, said Bourbon had constant vomiting and diarrhea and was often too weak to get out of bed to take his medication or insulin shots. The grievance alleges that he languished without meaningful medical intervention and that, after he died, his body was left in the cell for hours.

The IDOC denied a Tribune open-records request for information about Bourbon’s death, citing confidentiality exemptions. Officials also did not respond to requests for comment on individual cases.

In emailed responses to Tribune questions, Ryburn said he was not tested after Bourbon died but he did not get sick. He said he continues to bathe using the sink in his cell rather than risk infection by sharing a shower room with others.

Cynthia McDonald’s son, Joseph Wilson, 44, died of a COVID-19-related illness while hospitalized on April 13. In a November interview, she told the Tribune that he used to phone her once a week from Stateville and that, during one call, she noticed he could barely speak. She said prison officials did not notify her or Wilson’s wife that he was hospitalized until the family made repeated phone calls.

She described a frantic several days “just calling everybody” at the prison, “back and forth, in circles, basically.” Relatives also called a nearby hospital, she said, but inmates at the hospital are listed as John Does, which added to the initial confusion. McDonald questions whether her son received prompt medical attention.

“I’m tending to believe they did nothing but left him on the floor,” she said, “because he went straight from his cell to a hospital.”

Their complaints echo a survey conducted in April and early May by the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group. Of the 16,000 inmates who responded, 13% alleged they sought health care related to COVID-19 in the prior week but had not received a response.

State officials say symptomatic inmates are tested and isolated and those with the most serious cases are transferred to hospitals.

To try to hinder the pandemic’s spread, IDOC brought in about 30 members of the Illinois National Guard to assist with routine health screenings and other duties at Stateville. The department also reopened an old housing unit that was closed in 2016 because of mold, bad plumbing and other issues.

Built in the early 1920s and dubbed “the roundhouse,” the unit was used to quarantine infected inmates. The move was criticized by some advocates of prisoners’ rights because of its deteriorated state, but state officials said repairs were made and public health officials inspected it. The roundhouse remains in use today.

Months later, Stateville continues to see a steady flow of new cases but has not reported a COVID-19 fatality since mid-August, according to state data through Dec. 21. Speaking to the Senate panel on Friday, Jeffreys said strategies developed for the Stateville outbreak, such as deep cleaning, temperature checks, contact tracing and masking staff and inmates, have been duplicated systemwide.

“There was so much information that was coming and we had to figure it out for ourselves because there was just no guidance for correctional settings as it relates to this outbreak,” he said. “It brought our whole agency together and made us laser-focused to carry out our objectives as we combat this virus.”

A brutal resurgence

Similar to what happened in the outside world, the pandemic seemed under control in Illinois prisons most of the summer. Over four months, only one inmate died of COVID-19 systemwide.

But, between mid-August and mid-October, the cumulative number of inmate infections more than tripled and total staff cases more than doubled. The surge has continued, leading to sickness and death that advocates say was avoidable.

Dr. John Raba, the court-appointed monitor in a federal consent decree case regarding inmate health care, began pushing in August for the testing of all staff. He cited the rising numbers and urged the department to act quickly because of an anticipated nationwide fall/winter surge, making a priority of prisons with large elderly populations, such as the one in Dixon.

In response, the state’s lawyers said pilot programs were underway, but broadening testing at dozens of facilities was “no easy charge” and more time was needed to evaluate effectiveness.

Denice Bronis said her son, Matthew Echevarria, tested positive around Labor Day at Menard Correctional Center. Echevarria was a Chicago high school student when police arrested him in a 1999 fatal shooting he insists he did not commit.

“Every day I thought my son was going to die,” said Bronis, of East Dundee. “He was scared to death. He kept reaching out, ‘Mom, help me. Help me.’ ... That plea, as a mother, is rough to hear.”

Bronis said he recovered but continues to have headaches and breathing difficulties.

As for what caused the resurgence, that’s in dispute. IDOC officials said that when the virus is spreading in communities, staff may contract it at home and bring it into prisons. The screening process for staff includes temperature checks and, as of October, systemwide contact tracing.

The department says another source of infection is detainees being moved from county jails to prisons. Early in the pandemic, Pritzker signed an executive order that temporarily stopped the transfers, but they resumed in early August after the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association filed a lawsuit challenging the order. More than 4,000 jail detainees have entered state prisons since then.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, said that if IDOC strictly followed its protocols requiring quarantine periods and negative test results, the jail transfers should not be an issue. He argues the primary cause of the surge is staff infections and said IDOC should have responded with more urgency to Raba’s testing recommendations.

IDOC officials in early December began rolling out the testing program in which each worker is tested at least once a month, with the frequency based on the positivity rate of the prison’s county. The increased testing in recent weeks helped drive the most recent jump in positive case numbers, Jeffreys said.

Also this month, for those prisons where infections are soaring, both workers and inmates are being tested every three days until no new cases are identified for two weeks. Jeffreys said the outbreak mitigation program is in place at nine prisons so far, with several more planned in the next few weeks.

Eddie Caumiant, regional director of the union that includes state corrections employees, said the pandemic has exacerbated staffing shortages and some staff members wind up working “multiple 16-hour double shifts a week.”

IDOC has about 1,000 unfilled, budgeted positions, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. As of mid-December, about 400 employees were out sick and up to 100 more are usually out waiting for test results.

“They work tremendously hard under really difficult circumstances,” Caumiant said. The IDOC administration, he said, “has tried to be responsive. We do believe things are moving in the right direction.”

The one prison worker known to have died of the disease was Linda Savage, a 64-year-old nurse at Vienna Correctional Center whose duties included checking staff temperatures and giving inmates their medications.

Savage, a contract employee, had planned to retire in March but died on Nov. 6. Her husband, Terry, said she said was a gifted nurse with a “tender heart.” She loved camping, travel, flea markets and yard sales.

“She cared about people a whole lot,” said her husband, who met his wife in their late teens.

Thousands of prison workers have been sickened, including a correctional officer who spent a month on a ventilator fighting COVID-19 in March.

At last count, more than 3,200 staff and 6,700 inmates have been infected since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Dec. 21 state data. About 400 staff and 1,600 inmates are considered current cases. To date, 20% of inmates across the $1.6 billion corrections system have tested positive since March.

‘There’s no urgency’

Groups that track national virus data for state and federal prisons, such as the COVID Prison Project and The Marshall Project, place Illinois about average on lists comparing infections based on inmate populations, but Illinois has one of the higher death tolls.

Fatalities have been reported in at least 17 prisons across Illinois, with Dixon one of the latest hot spots. About one-third of Dixon’s staff was out recently due to sickness, union officials said, and at least 10 inmates, including Watson Gray, have died there since November.

“He wasn’t really asking for another chance,” said Lindsay Hagy, Gray’s attorney. “He just wanted to die with dignity outside of prison, at home with his family.”

Many experts agree the best way to control the virus in prison is to reduce head count. The IDOC inmate population has dropped 19% since March to about 30,000, in part because of the nearly 3,000 early releases. But more than 30% of those still locked up have a projected mandatory supervised release date before Jan. 1, 2022, meaning they are due to be set free in a year or less anyway, state data shows.

Since March, the governor has pardoned or commuted the sentences of about 100 men and women convicted of crimes, the oldest dating back to 1978, that range from murder to cannabis possession. In nearly two dozen of the cases, Pritzker granted freedom to men serving natural life sentences for armed robbery under the state’s habitual criminal law, which after a third offense triggers the mandatory sentence even if no one was physically harmed.

Arkee Chaney, 76, is an artist whose life sentence was commuted to time served in June after 31 years’ imprisonment for armed robbery. He has been living with Bill Ryan, a longtime criminal justice advocate and death penalty abolitionist, since his release. Ryan is among those trying to help free more prisoners during the pandemic, “especially the older people or those with terminal diseases.”

“People are dying and there’s no urgency assigned to anything,” Ryan said.

Lester Mason was released from Pontiac Correctional Center on Nov. 25 after spending 39 years in prison for armed robbery, his third such offense. He called his crimes “stupid mistakes.”

Mason said he spent the decades reading novels, writing to his family and mentoring young inmates. He had three disciplinary tickets in four decades for minor infractions, said his lawyer, Soble.

Mason, 76, said a feeling of lightness overtook him when a correctional officer stopped by his cell to tell him he was going home. He has “come back to normal now” since coming home with family, but remains thankful. “I’m open to all things that are positive,” he said.

Others are still hoping to be released. At about 100 pounds and in poor health, 78-year-old Susan Hertzberg hardly poses a threat to public safety, her lawyer said. Hertzberg has 13 months left on her sentence for marijuana trafficking. The Las Vegas woman and her husband, Roger, were nabbed in Illinois with nearly 50 pounds of pot on their way to Pittsburgh in 2012.

Roger Hertzberg, 76, died of COVID-19 complications Sept. 24 at Robinson Correctional Center. The couple’s daughter, Julie Rittenbaugh, thinks her father caught the virus while receiving chemotherapy for cancer in the prison’s medical unit. She said her retired parents were struggling financially when they committed the crime.

The couple, who had not seen each other since being imprisoned, were allowed a final phone call before he died.

“I could hear it in his voice, that he was close,” said Susan Hertzberg, as quoted in a petition her lawyer filed with the state seeking early release. “He said, ‘I’ll be with you.’”

(c)2020 the Chicago Tribune