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Letters From Incarcerated Illinoisans Depict “Slow and Inadequate” Prison Conditions Amid Pandemic

Anthony is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a man incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, a prison roughly 30 miles outside Chicago. I should make it clear that I do not know Anthony nor do I work in Stateville but I started receiving Anthony’s letters anonymously through my connection to IL-CHEP, the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison. IL-CHEP is a coalition of programs and educators dedicated to providing quality higher education opportunities for people who are incarcerated in Illinois. Equally important, they encourage public dialogue and action to reduce our state’s and country’s reliance on incarceration. Anthony has requested that his letters are shared widely, as a call to disturb public apathy around incarceration– a call that deeply resonates with me as an educator who works with incarcerated students.

When coronavirus started to make waves in mid-March, all prison higher education programs in the state suspended programming in order to keep students safe. I still think often about the last day I was at the prison, March 13, full of fear that I could inadvertently bring in coronavirus and cause someone to get sick but also heartbroken to leave behind in such an unsafe place these people for whom I care deeply.

Over two months have passed since I last saw my students. In that time, the Illinois Department of Corrections revealed itself as fully unprepared to protect the people under its care. The needs of our students changed quickly and our roles as educators and advocates had to adjust accordingly. We could no longer bring our students books, give lectures, facilitate discussions, or support their studies in other face-to-face ways.

Instead, IL-CHEP redirected funds and energies towards providing tens of thousands of dollars of soap and sanitizer for IDOC and Cook County Jail. Since making these initial donations, it has been difficult to confirm that these much needed supplies are getting into the right hands, and that people are not still being forced to buy soap from commissary.

I am no stranger to the shortcomings of the prison system at large and IDOC in particular, but this experience has been illuminating for me. I have witnessed the slow and inadequate response to this crisis on the part of the state. Anthony is living it. His letters paint a heartbreaking image of the way incarceration threatens public health and fails us all, both materially and morally.

As of this writing, at least 12 people at Stateville have died from COVID-19, a disease that incarcerated people cannot protect themselves from. From my own experience trying to investigate what’s really going on, I’ve had a hell of a time getting an official death toll, let alone the names of the men who have passed. IDOC still has not released this information, and advocates have had to struggle to get some simple truths.

Upon receiving Anthony’s letters, I was able to cross reference the names of the deceased men he gave with a spreadsheet of “Early Releases” from IDOC. This spreadsheet is supposed to contain the names of people who have been paroled or discharged early because of advocates’ urging to decarcerate. I looked for the names of the men who died and next to each name is the designation ‘Discharge Out’. When someone is discharged officially, it means their sentence including parole is over, they are no longer a ward of the state. They are removed from IDOC public records. In the case of a true discharge, removing names from the record is reasonable protocol. But these men were not discharged. They were never free. They died in custody, alone and shackled to a hospital bed. For IDOC to use the discharge designation for these men is a slap in the face. It is a way of hiding the deaths, sweeping them under the rug. I believe that their lives mattered. Anthony’s life matters.

My hope is that readers of Anthony’s words will be moved to demand transparency and accountability from IDOC, and from all carceral institutions that continue to show us nothing but cruel and senseless disregard for human life.

Anthony only dated the second letter, 4/21/20, so it’s hard to know exactly when the others were written, but my estimation is that the first one was written in early April and the third one was written in mid-May.

The three letters from Anthony are published below in their entirety, transcribed from his handwritten letters and edited minimally for readability.

Slow and Inadequate Letter One: Early April

I am a student here at Stateville through the Northwestern University Bachelors degree program. In addition to being a student, I am also a painter for the prison. I and our guys go around and paint whatever needs to be done. Since this place is basically held together by coats of paint, it’s a never-ending job and we stay quite busy. In fact, I painted the Northwestern logo in the school building and helped to paint the Northwestern colors. 

Going around the prison, there were a lot of c/o’s [correctional officers] who were sick, very sick. They were all over the prison. This was still the beginning of March. Only one person in the nation had died, social distancing hadn’t been implemented yet. Things here slowly slipped into absolute chaos. 

The virus bloomed like a malevolent flower, spreading everywhere. Still, nobody paid any attention, nobody cared. Guys began to get sick. Guys in B-house were hit. I contracted it, and I know exactly where I got it, my boss, the paint crew supervisor. He was still going to bars before they closed down. He came into work with a cough and light symptoms after drinking out on St. Patricks day. 3 days later, I began to get sick. I knew it then, that I had gotten the coronavirus.

Chicago had shut down all bars and restaurants. Suddenly a staff member, a c/o, was diagnosed with Covid-19. IDOC’s response was to cut off our visitors. No more visits period. 

It’s interesting the way IDOC has chosen to play this. They have taken the route of blaming our visitors for the coronavirus outbreak here. While I must concede that it’s entirely possible someone not yet showing symptoms came to visit someone and the virus may have been transmitted. But it’s ridiculous and disingenuous to blame our visitors for the spread of the virus when I personally saw many c/os here who were sick. My own boss was sick. Some of the staff were very sick. They soon began taking temperatures of staff when they came to work it was too late. The virus was already spreading.

IDOC’s response was slow and inadequate. Those two words are synonymous with Stateville. EVERYTHING here is slow and inadequate. They decided to shut down one cell house, B-house was quarantined. The rest of the prison continued to run normally, nothing to it. The rest of the joint was going to school, to yard, to healthcare. All this time the virus was spreading. I was getting sicker too. But still they called me out to work. They didn’t care. The irony of it was, I was sick with Covid-19, but my job was painting signs for people who were coming into the prison to wash their hands and not to come in sick. If I hadn’t been so sick I would have laughed.

I want to pause real quick and say a word about how they handle illness in here. It’s really quite backwards. When an illness like the flu, or Covid-19 runs through this place, they blame us. They treat us like lepers. It’s insane. We have no way to leave this place, we don’t go anywhere, we have a 30 foot wall around the entire prison. Every illness, every flu, even Covid-19 was brought in to us from irresponsible staff who came to work sick and spread their illness. They walk around here as if they have to protect themselves from us but they don’t worry about protecting us from them. For that reason, men here have died because they weren’t protected. It’s needless and senseless.

Anyway, more and more guys became sick. They decided to lock the prison down. They didn’t run chow at the time, but they were still running yard. Within a couple of days they stopped that as well. However, they still had workers like myself and many others going to work all over the joint by this time I was very sick. They didn’t care. As I said, slow and inadequate. They were still allowing sick staff into the prison as well.

I signed up for sick call so I could see someone about how sick I was. I saw a surly (and sick) med-tech. I told her how I was feeling. She didn’t take my temperature, she didn’t do anything. She told me, “its probably the flu, just drink more water.” I said, “Water?! That’s the cure for the flu, drink more water?” She just told me to go.

My boss knew I had been sick for days, but this particular day I was bad. I was sweating like crazy, but cold. I was coughing a lot, I had a headache and body aches. My boss decided to walk me up to healthcare and make sure I got my temperature taken. A woman in street clothes, I think it was the director of the hospital, took my temperature, it was 100.6. She said it wasn’t high enough to be tested for Covid-19. She said your temperature has to be 104 or higher. If your temp is 104 you’re in serious trouble! I don’t have any idea why the bar was set so high. She said that I was clearly sick, and sent me back to my cell.

Two days later, and much sicker, my boss came to get me to finish a project he really needed done. I don’t know how I did it. I was so ill. I felt like I was going to pass out! I don’t even remember finishing the project. I was so out of it, I just remember stumbling back to my cell and collapsing. 

I should have been taken out and quarantined even if I wasn’t going to get tested, instead of being out and running around the joint. This illness was a nightmare. My throat was sore, I had a racking, dry cough, and I felt like I couldn’t take a full breath. My body hurt everywhere, I couldn’t smell or taste anything, and I was exhausted. Just getting up to get a drink of water, or use the restroom was draining. I had no energy. I was like this for weeks. 

I have an older cellie named James Scott. He is in remission from lymphoma, he has diabetes and asthma. In other words, he is a walking example of pre-existing conditions that make him vulnerable. Because I was sent back to my cell, and I wasn’t taken out and quarantined, he inevitably caught what I had. He began to get bad. I was worried about him. Here I am sick, trying to take care of him sick, I couldn’t do it. I got him medical attention, and they took him out. He could hardly breathe. They took him out to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Joliet and put him on a ventilator. They tested him, and he tested positive for Covid-19. The most recent update I have on him is that he is not doing well at all.

Now you would think that having a cellie who tested positive for Covid-19 would get them to test me as well, especially as I was sick at the time, but NO! That’s not how things are done here at Stateville. I filed a grievance, asking to be tested since I had a cellie who was so sick he had to be taken out and put on a ventilator, but they did not respond to it, and to date I still have not been tested.

I tried to organize a protest here. I sent around a paper to each gallery, asking guys to protest by going on a hunger strike. I looked around and saw staff and the cellhouse workers with masks, gloves, and protective gear, yet we had no masks at all. They were giving the cellhouse workers bleach to mop the floors with. It seemed insane to me to mop floors everyday with bleach that we can’t even walk on because we are on lockdown WE need bleach! We need to clean our cell bars, our sinks, our toilets, and our walls!

I wanted the protest to be for these things, to be given masks and gloves, and bleach for our personal use. Finally the last thing I wanted was for all of us to be tested for Covid-19. I believe there are many guys here in Stateville who have, or who have had Covid-19 that they do not know about. All of us who are, or who have been sick should be tested!

Unfortunately, the protest didn’t work because we are on lockdown. It couldn’t be disseminated properly, or set up right. In these weeks we have been given a grand total of two face masks, and no gloves. They have begun passing out water, with some small amounts of bleach in it, but the amount of bleach is minimal to non-existent, and its simply not enough. Guys in here are dying. The last report on the news was that two people had died of Covid-19 here. It’s odd how just a week ago, Stateville, along with Cook County Jail, were national hotspots, with the rate of Covid-19 contractions 20 times the national average yet now you hear absolutely nothing about what’s going on here at Stateville! Why? They have clamped down tight on all information coming out of here. They don’t want people to know what’s happening here. 9 guys in all have died of Covid-19. NINE.

Governor Pritzker got on tv and said that we’re all being given bleach and hand sanitizer. I don’t think the Governor was lying, I simply think he was given bad information. We are not getting these things. The c/o’s walk around with a spray bottle with hand sanitizer and will spray your hands before your meals, or before you get meds. If you don’t get meds, you only get hand sanitizer twice a day. Besides that, it’s so watered down it’s nearly all water. Meanwhile, the phone is passed from cell to cell. It is the filthiest thing here, guys breathe into it, cough on it, everyone touches it, and we are not given anything to clean the phones with, or our hands with after touching it to pass it or use it.

The 9 guys who have died are Robert Simpson, William Holland, Joseph Wilson, Larry Steeples, Russel Sedelmaier, Ronald Rice, Larry Bourbon, Thomas McGee, and a guy who just died today named Terran. Two of these guys Mr. Holland and Joseph Wilson were on my gallery. Other guys have been taken out of here to the hospital, my cellie James Scott, Alan Hatley, Larry Mac, Mr. Hayes, a man named Glenn, Norwood, Jessie, and a guy we called Big Man. I am in C-house, on 4 gallery. It is the hottest spot in the whole prison. 4 of the guys taken out to the hospital are from the gallery as well. This is just my cellhouse, there are 3 other cell houses with guys who have contracted Covid-19.

Slow and inadequate.

Now they have brought in the National Guard to assist the medical staff. Its a joke. We are on lockdown, they are not running any medical passes, or clinic call lines. We are not seeing any doctors or dentists. There are no ventilators here, all of the guys I mentioned are being treated at the outside hospital. They are not testing for Covid-19, not even the sick guys unless you have a highly elevated fever. This in itself is not good enough. We are told over and over on tv by the experts, that you may not have a fever, but still have Covid-19. The medical staff here is doing next to nothing. There are times when the National Guard is doing security work because so many c/o’s are calling in. They don’t want to be here because the virus is galloping through this place.

As I stated, they are not testing here, and I believe the reason is because they don’t want anyone to know how many guys are actually sick here. If they do test, then they will have to report the results…however, if they don’t test, there is nothing to report.

They are doing something else here that boggles the mind. They are beginning to open the prison more, letting more an more guys go to work and move around the joint. Its dangerous. They have now let out the kitchen workers, healthcare workers, cellhouse workers, property workers, and most recently the grounds crew workers (lawn mowers). Its mystifying, why so many guys are out, running around the prison when men here are so sick, and some are dying. There are no transfers going on right now, the property workers are unneccessary. The grounds crew workers are lawn mowers…surely lawn care is not more important than our health!! They are letting more and more guys out to be all over the prison, and possibly continue the spread of Covid-19. It’s reckless and defies explanation.

There are no mental health checks here. It’s important, especially at this time. Despite prison bravado, there is a lot of fear and uncertainty here. There is no way for us to social distance, you cannot make yourself safe. Guys are being taken out of here left and right, others are dying. They are our neighbors and our friends. Some guys have family members who are sick, or who have died. This is a dangerous place, a hot spot. Its taking its toll on guys, but no on is taking any notice. On a personal level, I don’t know what I’ll do if my cellie James Scott dies, knowing he caught Covid-19 from me! He is my best friend in this whole place, my family. This virus doesn’t just effect your body, its effects your mind. Many guys here are unstable in normal circumstances, This situation is making guys worse.

We’ve always known we are the forgotten, the last in line…but its brought home to you in a hardcore way when you watch your friends, neighbors, and brothers died and nobody cares. Your worthlessness in society’s eyes is brought home to you. No amount of rehabilitation or change matters…we see it everyday, in the eyes of the staff WE don’t matter. We’re sick and we’re dying, and no one cares. Do You?

Slow and Inadequate Letter Two: Three Weeks Later, 4/21/20

Hi, how are you? I hope this letter finds you well and safe! I’m not doing too bad here physically…emotionally is another story. I wanted to send you an update about the situation here. Things have taken a turn for the worse. On 4.18.20 Jessie Smith died here from Covid-19, and on 4.20, my cellie, James Scott died also of Covid-19. That was a blow I wasn’t expecting, but more on that in a minute. This is the 10th and 11th person to die here at Stateville…yet you don’t hear a thing about it, we still have guys here who are out on ventilators. We heard about the 4th guy to die in Cook County, but nothing about 11 dead here. That’s 4 guys dead just in my gallery! People need to know what is happening here. My cellhouse, my gallery specifically is the hottest spot in the entire prison!! It is not getting better here, it’s only getting more dangerous. This administration is taking steps that will continue to put health and lives at risk!

My heart is truly breaking. James was my best friend in this whole place! Its rare to find someone to get so tight with in this place. We were cellies for nearly 5 years. I knew him for years before that. He was my best friend, my brother — my family! I truly lost a family member. It breaks my heart because I gave it to him! I had gotten sick about 8 or 9 days before they put us on lockdown. I knew I had it, I had all the symptoms, headache, cough, body aches, sore throat, I couldn’t taste or smell anything. It was terrible.

He was not sick. I had seen the healthcare 3 times by this point. They kept telling me I had the flu. I knew it was Covid! They didn’t take any precautions, they knew he was old (58), he had health problems, he was in remission from lymphoma, he had diabetes and asthma…what they should have done was quarantine me, get me out of the cell, take precautions, and he never would have gotten it! He inevitably got what I had, and on March 29th I got him medical attention, and they took him out of here. He tested positive for Covid-19, and three weeks later, he died. I never got to see my brother again! He died alone, in some hospital, and it breaks my heart. He died from something I gave him, and it was so needless, so senseless! I would rather they took an overabundance of caution, than an underabundance…but, underabundance seems like all they are capable of!! They don’t give a rats ass about any of us in here.

This is the loneliest place in the world, when you find people you connect with, you hold on to them…I don’t make a lot of friends, and I lost my best friend yesterday. There’s such a big hole in my heart, and I feel lonelier than I ever have in my life.

Sigh…I don’t know what I’m gonna do now, I’m just lost, adrift…and so angry that he died when he didn’t have to.

Things here are still dangerous. They are letting more people out to run around and work. They are running short of styrofoam trays, so now they are giving us our food on plastic, covered trays…but a lot of people touch these trays. Plus, the cellhouse workers who pass out the chow are issued 1 pair of latex gloves…they sweep, mop, pick up trash, touch bars, clothes, and everything else with these gloves, then pass our food out to us! All of this with the same pair of gloves, and its just as bad as if they didn’t have gloves on at all. The cross contamination is crazy! We are given 1 mask every other week it seems. Once you contaminate that mask, then touch it with your gloved hands, its contaminated! All of the c/os and staff wear N95 masks, we, none of the inmates get those!! The more people we inform of this the better!

Please take care of yourself! Stay inside, and stay safe. My warmest regards to you.

Sincerely, Anthony

Slow and Inadequate Letter Three: Mid-May 

My name is Anthony [redacted], and I bring you yet another installment of the Stateville saga “Slow and Inadequate.” 

When I last left off, Stateville inexplicably began letting non-essential workers out such as the grass cutters. They had also begun letting guys go to the yard. They were trying very hard to open the prison up. I was critical of this and thought it was a particularly dumb idea. There were still guys being taken out with Covid, and 3 men had died in that week alone. It turns out, my misgivings were well-grounded. 

On Friday, May 1st, they tested a lot of guys in D-house, many of whom were kitchen workers. All of them came back positive. D-house went on immediate quarantine. 

On Saturday, May 2nd, they tested guys in B-house, once again, many came back positive. B-house then went on immediate quarantine. 

On Sunday, May 3rd, they tested guys in E-house. Once again, many were positive for Covid. E-house went on immediate quarantine. 

So on Monday, May 4th, they made it to my cellhouse, C-house, to test guys, mainly kitchen and commissary workers. They again got a lot of positive results. My new cellie and I were both tested. He is a kitchen worker. They did the “rapid test” … he came back positive. I knew I would be negative having had it two months previously. 

Michelle Miller, the director of the healthcare here at Stateville administered the tests. She said that we had to be quarantined regardless of a negative test result, until UIC confirmed the negative test result with a second test. 

They took all of us, both positive and negative and put us in F-house because tent city in the gym was full. F-house is the completely condemned round house … the panopticon. It made no sense, we were all transported together, no social distancing. They even housed both positive and negative guys on the same gallery. 

Before I get into the fiasco that was F-house, I want to talk about how many guys have tested positive. Approximately 40-50% of the kitchen workers who are handling our food, and those hard plastic trays every day have tested positive. I’ve seen them in quarantine with my own eyes. The same can be said for the guys who work in the commissary, 40-50% of them have also tested positive. These are the guys who pack the items we order, and send them to us … potentially infected. 

F-house itself is absolutely surreal. Surely an environment like this can’t exist given all that has gone on here!? First, you must understand that F-house is condemned , it was shut down as uninhabitable. They have no business housing inmates in it period! The water out of the sink was brown and undrinkable. The toilet occasionally decided to work, and the cell itself was filthy ! They did no cleaning. We had to go crazy just to get cleaning supplies. We had to do the same just for bottled water. The situation was disgusting and stressful. They were so ill prepared for this outbreak, despite all the sickness and the many deaths here these last two months. 

They put all of us in a single man cell … but, they housed us both positive and negative on the same gallery! Dumb, Dumb, and Dumb! They had workers for the cellhouse who were Covid positive. They worked on the side of the Covid positive guys … but, when the food trays came into the cellhouse we could see them touch and pick through the trays, racks, and milks. Many of us refused trays because we had seen them touched by positive inmates. They passed the phone also, touching phones we non-positive guys had to use as well! 

They have a shower schedule, all of the positive guys shower in the morning. Then at night, they shower all of us non-positive guys in the same showers. They only occasionally cleaned the showers after the positive guys … and it was always a Covid positive guy who cleans the showers!! How is it possible for a Covid positive guy to effectively clean and disinfect the shower? Many of us elected not to take showers, though some did. We washed up in the brown water, we didn’t take a shower the entire 5 days that I was there. 

They moved all of the kitchen and commissary workers to F-house. They have a positive side, from cell 2-25 on 1, 2, 3, and 4 gallery. On the other side are the negative guys. But, it’s a round house, there is a lot of mixing and passing. I saw a non-positive inmate being given a mattress from a positive guy’s cell! It’s absolute chaos, it’s so inept, and poorly implemented. EVERYBODY in F-house is going to get Covid at this point. How could you not? 

Let me address those that may feel that IDOC is taking steps in a positive direction. Oddly, I actually agree, they have positive plans in place, however, the implementation of those plans are mistaken, chaotic, and poorly done. 

When I got sick two months ago, the director of the hospital Michelle Miller took my temperature. It was 100.6 … she said it was not high enough to be tested for Covid-19. When I was tested Monday, May 4th, this same woman administered the test. When asked, she stated that they have changed guidelines, and now do things according to CDC guidelines. That’s commendable, and I do think the way the tests are administered, with backup tests being sent to UIC for confirmation is a great idea … but it’s an awful long time coming. 

I would like to know just what guidelines they followed back in March when I was so sick? When I saw med-techs on 3 separate occasions, and was told to “drink water,” and that I just had the flu. On March 9th, Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a proclamation declaring a disaster in the state of Illinois. They knew the risks well in advance of the outbreak here at Stateville. It was known by everyone , through the relentless media that Covid-19 was especially harmful and deadly to those with pre-existing conditions like cancer or diabetes. IDOC was aware of this, and they did nothing to protect guys. On March 25th, 2020, IDOC announced their first case of Covid at Stateville. Five days later, on March 30th, Dr. Ngozi Ezike announced that 12 prisoners had been hospitalized with confirmed cases of Covid. That same day, St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Stateville prisoners had been hospitalized, announced that it was “overwhelmed.” The hospital’s medical director called the situation a “disaster.” But the virus had been here long before March 25th! By that time they had already taken several guys out of my cellhouse with Covid-19. 

We went on full lockdown here March 15th. My cellie, James Scott, was not yet sick … but I was. I was very sick. So sick in fact, my boss took me to the healthcare himself. They knew the risks to those elderly guys. Had they immediately tested me, or even quarantined me, my best friend James Scott would still be alive. 

James was 58, he had underlying medical conditions. He was a cancer survivor. A year earlier he had beaten Stage 4 Lymphoma, and had been in remission for over a year … but that fight left him immuno-comprimised. He also had diabetes and asthma. He was a prime candidate to be hit very hard if he got Covid-19. He was well known to the healthcare staff, every morning he had to go get an insulin shot. They knew him and his health issues very well, yet they did nothing to protect him. He did not get Covid-19 until they put us on lockdown, and they did not quarantine me. James contracted Covid-19. He began to suffer, having trouble breathing and coughing. I got him medical attention the night of March 29th. He was taken to an outside hospital, where he died 3 weeks later! 

So yes, they are doing much better with their protocols now, but it doesn’t wash the blood from their hands. James died from their neglect. His death was preventable. They took no care or considerations about his age or risk factors. They kept emphatically telling me I had the flu, without considering the possibility that I had Covid-19. This, despite the fact that 3 guys on our own gallery had already been taken to outside hospitals with confirmed Covid cases. 

IDOC is responsible for James contracting Covid-19 and dying from it. He died because of their “guidelines” … my temperature wasn’t high enough to test me. He died … and he did not have to! 

F-house is another poorly instituted plan. This Covid outbreak is squarely on their shoulders. The implementation of this new F-house situation, housing both positive and negative guys together is undoubtedly going to lead to more infections, and possibly deaths. 

I have become convinced that both IDOC and Stateville are incapable of preventing the spread of this virus. Their record to date disqualifies them from being allowed to do anything further. Out of the 28 prisons in Illinois, this is the only prison with nearly 20 deaths, and a prolonged, continued outbreak. They do not care about our health or our lives here. What we need, what the public needs, is for the federal government to step in and take over to stop the spread of this virus and the deaths. They cannot be trusted to satisfactorily implement any plans to stop Covid-19, they are not capable or competent enough … and people have died as a result of it. 

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