CHICAGO — A federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Chicago seeks an order directing state officials “to drastically reduce Illinois’s prison population” on grounds that hundreds of inmates are particularly vulnerable to catching and dying from the coronavirus.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court names 10 inmates but seeks class-action status to represent older prisoners and those with underlying health conditions, saying that poor medical care and a lack of protective measures behind bars in Illinois make the COVID-19 virus especially deadly.
“The State is not acting with sufficient urgency, and without intervention from this Court, people are going to die unnecessarily,” it says. It adds: “Illinois prisons are on the cusp of an outbreak, but there is still time for urgent and decisive action that can prevent harm.”
Also Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that one of the city’s police officers died of the virus. She said said 50-year-old Marco Di Franco was with the department for 21 years.
The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.
The Thursday lawsuit says the risks aren’t limited to some 37,000 prisoners at 28 Illinois prisons.
“Without urgent action by the Governor and the Illinois Department of Corrections to drastically reduce Illinois’s prison population, the novel coronavirus is likely to spread not just inside the walls of Illinois’s 28 prisons, but throughout prison communities as well,” it says.
The kind of social distancing that helps slow transmission of the virus is impossible in prison, with prisoners crowded into small cells, as well as sharing showers and toilets, the suit says. It says a lack of masks, gloves and other protective equipment for guards adds to the hazards.
According to the filing, more than 50 Illinois prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus, with the actual number of infected likely far higher. Twenty-seven staff members, including 17 at Stateville prison in Joliet, have as well, according to the Department of Corrections.
Lawyers for civil-rights groups filed the 48-page lawsuit. It names Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, Rob Jeffreys, as defendants.
The governor said a review is underway to look for low-level offenders who can be released “precisely because we want to do what activists want, which is to lessen the pressure within prisons, where they’re in such close quarters that they might be communicable to one another.”
Pritzker said the prison system’s population is down more than 1,000 since Feb. 1, in part because of commuting sentences and releasing nonviolent offenders who are pregnant or new mothers.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the immediate medical furlough of some prisoners and the transfer to home detention of others, including those 55 and older with less than a year left on their sentences. It argues that the sickness many prisoners would face violates constitutional protections against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
COVID-19 has led to the death of one inmate at Stateville, where 19 other prisoners had been hospitalized with the illness.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ngoze Ezike, the state public health director, reported 7,695 cases of COVID-19 in 61 counties. Cook County, including Chicago, had 5,575 cases or 72%. There have been 157 deaths in Illinois.
Chicago’s interim police superintendent Charlie Beck said it’s not clear how Di Franco, who worked in narcotics, became infected. He became ill last week.
Police departments across the country have reported an increasing number of cases among their employees in recent days and leaders have tried various strategies to limit officers’ exposure as they continue working.
Beck said as many Chicago officers as possible are working in cars alone, but he noted solo patrols can sometimes be dangerous. When officers must be partnered, he said the same people will work together as often as possible.
“We have always been more at risk for violence because of our profession and now we are more at risk of virus because of our profession,” Beck said.
Di Franco is survived by his wife and two children, who are 7 and 10 years old, Beck said. His brother also works in the same narcotics division.
“This searing loss is yet another reminder of the lethal danger of COVID-19 and the danger it poses to our city,” Lightfoot said.