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June 30, 2020

Contact: Jamey Dunn-Thomason
               (217) 300-8409


IGPA task force reports on addressing COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails

URBANA —The University of Illinois System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) today released a report on COVID-19’s impact in the state’s prisons and jails.

The Policy Spotlight, titled Pandemic Behind Bars: Containing COVID-19 Outbreaks in Illinois Correctional Settings, examines cases of prisons and jails across the country that have become hotspots for COVID-19 infections. In Illinois, the confirmed rate of COVID-19 cases in some correctional settings is significantly higher than the rate in the state’s general population.

As of June 22, the Cook County Jail (CCJ) reported 558 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19, seven of whom had died. Among CCJ staff, 446 cases had been confirmed, and two correctional officers and one deputy had died due to COVID-19. In Illinois prisons, 274 inmates and 184 staff had tested positive for COVID-19. The most recent information publicly available indicates 13 inmates have died.

Outbreaks in prisons and jails not only put inmates and staff at risk, they potentially threaten communities near these facilities and those inmates return to upon release.

“Ensuring proper prevention and care in prisons is a smart public health move because it protects inmates, staff and communities where prisons are located,” said Policy Spotlight co-author Sage Kim, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Administration in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But, it is also an issue of justice. People in correctional settings have rights to adequate healthcare and protection. The history of racial bias in our criminal justice policies has led to the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, the same groups that are most affected by COVID-19 in the population at large. COVID-19 transmission in jails and prisons may be an additional burden to black and brown communities throughout Illinois.” 

The Policy Spotlight says testing should be prioritized in areas where there is a greater risk of the virus either being carried into the facility by staff from the region or spilling over into the community. The spotlight suggests that while the Illinois Department of Corrections has made progress on giving inmates some access to cleaning and hygiene supplies and COVID-19 testing, the conditions still need to be improved.

The location of several of the state’s prisons is also a factor when considering the implications of potential outbreaks. “Many of Illinois’ prisons are located in rural counties. The health care capacity in these areas, including hospital beds, intensive care units and ventilators, is relatively limited. Potential transmission of COVID-19 in correctional settings would further stress rural hospitals,” the report says.

The spotlight also emphasizes the importance of addressing mental health needs by ensuring inmates have access to phone calls and video visits with family and friends at a time when they are not allowed in-person visits. The state has already reduced the cost of calls for inmates, but the rates for these calls still remain high in some jails across Illinois.

The authors suggest that there are tools already in place to help combat COVID-19 in Illinois prisons. Lawsuits over poor health care in the state’s prisons resulted last year in a Consent Decree. That legal agreement has requirements, including health screenings and mortality reviews, that should be applied to the current pandemic.

“It can be extremely difficult for inmates who are not getting proper health care to win lawsuits, and the legal process takes time,” said Policy Spotlight co-author Robin Fretwell Wilson, IGPA director and Roger and Stephany Joslin Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. “Illinois already has a Consent Decree guaranteeing adequate care for inmates and a court-appointed monitor who oversees the Department of Corrections’ efforts to provide care. Ensuring that inmates are screened for COVID-19 and that those who test positive are properly cared for would fall under the charge of the Consent Decree, which offers a path for responding to outbreaks.”

This Policy Spotlight grew out of the work of IGPA’s Task Force on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic. At the request of U of I System President Tim Killeen, IGPA assembled more than four dozen interdisciplinary faculty experts from the three system universities to serve on the task force. All of the task force’s work, including additional Policy Spotlights, can be found on the group’s webpage.


About the Institute of Government and Public Affairs
IGPA seeks to improve public policy discussion through non-partisan, evidence-based research and public engagement in Illinois. Learn more at igpa.uillinois.edu and follow @IllinoisIGPA for the latest updates.