Covid-19 at Illinois Corrections Leaves Loved Ones in Dark

Razor wire sits on a fence at the Metropolitan Correctional Center June 9, 2009 in New York City
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Cynthia McDonald’s son Joseph Wilson contracted Covid-19 in late March while serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and attempted robbery at the Stateville Correctional Center, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. McDonald said she found out that he had been taken away from the prison in an ambulance when she received a phone call from her nephew, who’d been contacted by a prison guard who was a friend of Wilson’s.

But the mother, who lives in the Auburn Gresham community on Chicago’s South Side, said prison officials never formally notified her that Wilson had been hospitalized with the deadly virus. She also has alleged that corrections officials kept her in the dark as his health waned.

“It seems like they don’t care,” she said.

Robert Eyler got infected by Covid-19 in August. His mother, Terry Zahn, told Injustice Watch that she first found out when a nurse called as a favor to Eyler after prison officials hospitalized him. He had been serving a nine-year sentence at the Jacksonville Correctional Center in Morgan County for the manufacturing of methamphetamine.

“They could have at least had the decency to call me to tell me that he had gone to the hospital,” she said of prison officials. “It’s just not right.”

McDonald and Zahn eventually lost their sons to the virus.

Covid-19 has created incredible barriers for people navigating the final moments of a loved one’s life. McDonald and Zahn had the added burden of navigating Illinois’ embattled prison health care system during a pandemic. Their accounts highlight a long-standing problem of Illinois prison officials failing to inform families when their loved ones are hospitalized or fall ill. Advocates said the pandemic has made matters worse, as prison officials deal with an increased number of inmate deaths compared to last year.

The Illinois Department of Corrections has confirmed almost 9,000 cases of Covid-19 among staff and inmates to date. Fifty-two inmates have died from Covid-19 between March 29 and December 8. More than half of those deaths have come since the beginning of October.

Injustice Watch made numerous attempts to contact David Gomez, the warden at Stateville, where more inmates have died during the pandemic than at any other Illinois prison. Gomez would not agree to be interviewed about the family notification issues that McDonald faced. Instead, a member of Gomez’s staff directed Injustice Watch’s questions to state prison spokesperson Lindsey Hess. Jacksonville Warden Gregg Scott answered the phone. But he declined to discuss policies or details about Zahn’s son’s case and also referred questions to Hess.

Injustice Watch sent Hess a list of detailed questions about the mothers’ allegations. However, she did not answer specific questions about what McDonald and Zahn went through leading up to their sons’ final moments. We also asked Hess about the agency’s policies and procedures for informing family members that their loved ones in custody were sick or dying.

In an emailed statement, Hess said the agency has adopted a policy during the pandemic that directs either wardens, assistant wardens or a designee at prisons to notify the closest relative of an incarcerated person when the inmate is hospitalized.

However, both mothers interviewed by Injustice Watch said they heard about their sons’ hospitalizations from someone other than department officials. This kind of notification is not uncommon, said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

“The things that I’ve seen happen most commonly is either compassionate hospital staff will contact the family, or the cellmates or friends of the incarcerated person will get in touch,” she said. “Rarely do we see families being contacted directly by a prison bureau.”

Sarah Grady, head of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at Loevy and Loevy, a Chicago-based civil rights law firm, sees this as a pervasive issue. “Frankly,” she said, “this is something we run into with almost every case, and this is not just isolated to the Covid context.”

The notification issues are “an age-old problem,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. Mills has represented thousands of Illinois prisoners in lawsuits against the corrections department.

He said that, while the corrections department typically does a sufficient job of notifying family members when a loved one dies, the department is not required by law to inform them when the incarcerated individual experienced severe, even life-threatening illness.

Several experts on prison litigation and corrections interviewed by Injustice Watch said corrections department officials typically cite medical privacy or security concerns when they withhold information from families.

Authorities’ failure to notify incarcerated people’s families is not isolated to prisons in Illinois. Media reports from Maryland, Indiana and North Carolina have spotlighted the problem in other state prison systems amid the pandemic and prior to it.

Steve Martin, a leading corrections expert currently overseeing reforms at the Rikers Island prison complex in New York City, has examined prisons for nearly 50 years. He said the health notification concerns in Illinois are part of a broader pattern of failure across U.S. prison systems.

“It’s such a basic act of humanity that should be done by any governmental agency that is charged with managing confined persons,” he said. Martin said the problem is exacerbated by “a void in terms of standards and requirements on this issue.”

Neither the National Commission on Correctional Health Care nor the American Correctional Association offers any official guidance on how prison officials should communicate with sick inmates’ families.

‘They’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing’

Robert Eyler’s family knew him as “Bobby,” his mother said. He was born and raised in downstate Quincy, Illinois, and loved NASCAR. He had been serving time at the Jacksonville prison for a 2017 conviction for the possession and manufacture of methamphetamine drugs, court records show. When he died in custody at age 51, three years before his scheduled release date, he left behind four adult children and three grandchildren, including an 8-year-old granddaughter and two grandsons ages 2 and 6.

Zahn said she and her son were close. The pair spoke regularly, sometimes twice a day. But in early August, Eyler called Zahn from the Jacksonville prison, terrified by the prison’s Covid-19 response, she said.

“‘They’re going to kill us,’” Zahn recalls him saying. “‘They’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.’”

His mother said he complained that guards weren’t wearing masks at the prison, and that inmates were only given the disposable face coverings once per week.

In an amended complaint filed in the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois’ eastern division in May, several incarcerated people at the Jacksonville prison complained that the corrections department was not enforcing Covid-19 protocols strictly enough, and that guards were often unmasked on duty. The lawsuit, originally filed in April, calls for improved conditions in Illinois prisons and the release of medically vulnerable individuals. Two attorneys interviewed for this article, Grady and Mills, are among the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the suit.

Zahn said Eyler also feared that the busloads of incarcerated people brought from jails around the state would spread the virus at Jacksonville, which as of early August, had seen very few cases of Covid-19. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted the moratorium on jail transfers to state correctional facilities at the end of July after a Logan County judge struck down the ban, clearing the way for about 2,000 detainees to be moved into Illinois prisons. Pritzker had originally implemented the ban to slow the spread of the virus in the state’s prisons.

Before Eyler’s hospitalization, Zahn remembers that he called her complaining about shortness of breath and fatigue. The next day, Zahn said the usual call that she had come to expect from her son never came. Instead, Zahn said, a nurse at a Springfield hospital called her at Eyler’s request and said he had contracted Covid-19 and was being treated there.

Zahn recalled that she was in contact with the nursing staff at the hospital until a nurse told her to direct further inquiries to the Jacksonville prison. She then called the correctional facility’s nursing department, where staff relayed her requests to Scott, the warden.

Scott then granted Zahn permission to receive updates about Eyler’s condition directly from hospital staff, according to the mother. Zahn had power of attorney over Eyler, she said, allowing her access to her son’s medical records and updates about his condition through his monthlong hospital stay.

Zahn remembered a doctor at the hospital calling her Sept. 20 to say that her son’s condition was unstable, and that he would likely die. Eyler had been on a ventilator for 28 days, Zahn said.

Prison officials granted Zahn and her daughter permission to see Eyler at the hospital, according to the mother. When they arrived in the intensive care unit, Zahn said, the hospital staff provided them with paper gowns and masks, and they were able to spend Eyler’s final moments with him.

Zahn hosted a funeral for her son Oct. 3 with close family and friends in Quincy, Illinois. Eyler was buried in a NASCAR urn. Zahn, laughing over the phone, remembered a country music song her family played at the funeral by Merle Haggard and recited the lyrics: “‘Turned 21 in prison doing life without parole, no one could steer me right, but momma tried.’”

“And I tried for Bobby,” she said. “I really did.”

“Nobody else’s family should have to go through what I went through and what Bobby went through,” she said.

‘There were so many unknowns that I just don’t have any closure’

Joseph Wilson grew up in the Austin community, on Chicago’s West Side. Wilson had two step-children and is also survived by a wife who lives in Ohio, and his mother, McDonald, who said she was close with her son and typically spoke with him at least once per week.

McDonald described him as “a happy-go-lucky person” and said she had received an outpouring of support from Wilson’s friends in prison since his death, one of whom sent her a hand-drawn portrait of Wilson, who was 44 when he died. Wilson had been in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections since his conviction in 1998 for the August 1995 shooting of William Burra during an armed robbery on the West Side. Wilson was 19 when prosecutors said he pulled the trigger, according to court records.

The Stateville Correctional Center, where Wilson was serving a life sentence, was the site of the first major outbreak of Covid-19 in the state prison system. More people incarcerated at Stateville have died from the virus than any other Illinois prison, according to department data obtained by Injustice Watch.

McDonald said after a correctional officer at Stateville informally tipped off Wilson’s family that he was sick in late March, she called Stateville repeatedly, hoping to speak with a nurse or Gomez, the warden, to learn what hospital her son had been taken to and what condition he was in.

McDonald said staff at Stateville gave her the run-around when she called looking for answers. She alleged that she was bounced around from person to person without being given any substantive information for several days. McDonald recalled eventually finding out from his wife where her son was being treated, at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in nearby Joliet. But his wife also remembers having a hard time getting information.

Deborah Wilson, who was married to Wilson for 17 years before he died, said she was authorized to receive health information and notifications about her husband’s well-being from the Illinois Department of Corrections. But she alleged that the department never notified her of Wilson’s illness or hospitalization. Instead, Wilson said she found out from the wife of another inmate who called her to tell her the news.

McDonald and Deborah Wilson said they received news of Wilson’s eventual death from the staff at the hospital where he was being treated on April 13. McDonald remains suspicious of the circumstances around Wilson’s death, wondering whether anything more could have been done to help her son.

Coping with Wilson’s death has been especially hard for McDonald, she said, given how poorly prison officials communicated with his loved ones when he first got sick.

“I don’t think my son should be dead,” McDonald said. “There were so many unknowns that I just don’t have any closure.”

Losing a loved one can be even more challenging when people think that the deceased suffered before they died, according to experts on grief and bereavement. Dr. Katherine M. Shear, director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, said, “losing a child, losing someone to Covid, and losing someone in a situation where you feel that there was an injustice” can put people at an increased risk of developing prolonged grief disorder.

In an emailed statement, department spokesperson Hess said the department “investigates any and all allegations” of facilities failing to follow policies for notifying families when their incarcerated loved one is hospitalized during the pandemic.

Corrections officials “welcome any information that would help ensure transparent communication is being provided to the families of men and women in custody,” according to the statement

But Hess did not answer questions about McDonald’s and Zahn’s specific cases or say whether the department was investigating their allegations.

Camille Bennett, director of the Corrections Reform Project at the ACLU of Illinois, said it would take pressure on the Illinois Department of Corrections from state lawmakers to force the agency to better communicate with families when their incarcerated loved ones get sick.

“In order for us to see some change with the family contact issue, there needs to be some additional legislative action or a general outcry from the public,” she said.

Injustice Watch spoke with Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Illinois’ 14th District about allegations that prison officials failed to promptly notify incarcerated people’s loved ones that the inmates had been hospitalized with Covid-19. Cassidy is a co-sponsor of a bill that would require the Illinois Department of Corrections to notify families about the cause of death when someone dies in state custody.

Cassidy said she was not familiar with the family contact issue as it pertains to hospitalizations. But she said the concerns raised might beg an important question about the state’s Covid-19 response: “What did we do to ensure that (incarcerated) people could remain connected to their families?”

“We’re going to have a lot of these conversations in our next session about what we’ve learned from the Covid-19 crisis and how it will help us operate more humanely moving forward,” she said when Injustice Watch asked whether she’d consider addressing the family notification problem via future legislation.

McDonald said she wants to see more urgency from elected officials.

“I think that there should have been something in place already,” she said. “People die and get sick in (prison) all the time. This shouldn’t be something that they’re just thinking about now because of Covid.”

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