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Advocating for COVID-19 Prevention and Protection in Prisons

Stories | 04.28.20

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry Barrett, Program Assistant for the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at Adler University, has been at the forefront of daily activism to help protect Illinois prisoners.

He is collaborating with partner organizations to promote the release of prisoners, especially those who are elderly or have preexisting health issues. They are also working to increase access to protective and sanitizing equipment for all incarcerated people in Illinois.

Advocating for the Release of Vulnerable Populations

Barrett is working with the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (IL-CHEP) to demand compassionate release and medical furlough for as many prisoners as possible to help mitigate the spread of the virus in state prisons and county jails. This is especially crucial for facilities that are already well over capacity to keep people who are incarcerated from being disproportionately impacted by the virus.

Barrett serves on the steering committee for IL-CHEP, a coalition of programs and educators dedicated to providing higher education opportunities for people who are incarcerated in Illinois. He has been able to offer a valuable perspective to IL-CHEP as someone who was formerly incarcerated.

“I’ve been able to bring a returning citizen voice to the table, allowing people’s voices on the inside to be better heard,” he said. Barrett is also an alum of a higher education program, the Education Justice Project, and speaks to the power of education to help him “develop into the person who I know I am.”

When the pandemic started, IL-CHEP coordinated quickly to help protect these populations. “We decided that we should mobilize as soon as we became aware of COVID-19,” Barrett said. “We were one of the first groups, if not the first, demanding the release of people who are elderly or at-risk.”

The coalition wrote a letter to the Illinois Department of Corrections and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, which Barrett delivered it to the Governor’s office at the Thompson Center in Chicago on March 12.

The letter asks for the department and governor “to consider immediately ordering a review of all people in Illinois prisons and jails who are elderly or infirm, with an eye toward providing medical furloughs or compassionate release to as many of them as possible.” The letter states that this will “not only protect them, but also other incarcerated people, officers, and staff by decreasing the strain on resources within the prisons once the virus hits.”

Data from 2018 shows that 44,000 people were incarcerated in Illinois state prisons, but the system was designed to accommodate only about 27,000 inmates. Overcrowding like this can increase the risk of the virus spreading throughout these facilities.

“Were the coronavirus to infect a given prison population while simultaneously raging in the outside world and pressing hospitals to their limits—which is likely to be the case—the demographics of our state’s prisons means that deaths among incarcerated populations would be difficult to avoid,” the letter states. It adds that 20 percent of the population in Illinois prisons are elderly, thus more at risk to die or be seriously ill from the virus.

As of April 28, 147 staff members and 155 incarcerated individuals in Illinois facilities have tested positive for the virus, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Since submitting the letter, the group continued to raise awareness of the need to release people from prison, emphasizing the public safety risk. They hosted a week-long campaign of activities March 10-17, including a vigil and car caravan to put pressure on Governor Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Corrections to “let our people go.”

“We’ve brought together celebrities, doctors, politicians, and citizens with loved ones crossing every color, crisis, class, and crime to join in one very powerful voice to demand that Illinois authorities take the actions necessary to protect the lives of people in their custody,” Barrett said.

These efforts have proved successful—at least in small steps. The Illinois Department of Public Health appointed Katrina Burlet, one of the organizers of the IL-CHEP Campaign, to their Equity Team. She is helping to create actionable recommendations for the Illinois Department of Corrections and Governor Pritzker for how to act to promote public health throughout the department.

The governor commuted 17 sentences between March 11 and April 13, according to the Prisoner Review Board. He has talked about continuing to use clemency as a way to release some prisoners and “right some of the wrongs across Illinois’ recent history of unjust sentencing laws,” Barrett said.

In anticipation of people being released, Barrett and IL-CHEP are working to find potential housing. They have also collaborated with a few of the Restorative Justice Hubs of Chicago, another project of the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice, to provide assistance with the re-entry process. This is especially important, and challenging, in a declining job market and since many government and social services offices are closed.

Increasing Access to Protective Supplies and Information

Barrett and the other IL-CHEP members are also working on other ways to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 inside of state prisons and county jails. They are collecting funds to distribute hand sanitizer, soap, masks, and cleaning materials to Illinois prisons.

IL-CHEP initially provided hand sanitizer, but then was asked by the Illinois Department of Corrections to also donate soap and masks, which the department did not budget to provide. IL-CHEP has added these materials to the collection. They are also advocating for accurate information about the virus to be made readily available to incarcerated individuals and are distributing a newsletter to help make sure that people in the facilities are well informed.

Beyond the current epidemic, Barrett and the other IL-CHEP members encourage “public dialogue and action to reduce our state’s and country’s reliance on incarceration.”

Barrett said the end goal of all of this work by the Institute and its partnerships is to “make the world a more socially just place.”

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