Limiting COVID-19 Transmission by Reduced Inmate Populations

An aerial view of the Cook County Jail.

Reducing the overall population in congregate settings is one way to reduce transmission. This can happen at either end, releasing inmates from facilities early or curbing admission into them.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been calls for inmate release to forestall an unfolding public health disaster within the nation’s correctional systems.70 California, New York, Ohio and Texas have all taken that approach and imple- mented early release of inmates who committed non-violent offenses, are elderly, or who have existing health risks, demonstrating that such a policy is feasible.71 For instance, Ohio released 300 inmates in the week following its aggressive testing increase in late March.72 Rikers Island has released more than 2,600 individuals who were non-violent inmates, largely prompted by litigation.73

A class action lawsuit filed in federal court seeks similar relief for IDOC inmates from the risk of COVID-19 transmission, including medical furloughs and transfer to home detention for self-isolation.74 The lawsuit requested that IDOC put in place actions to protect vulnerable inmates. For example, it requests immediate medical fur- lough for those with underlying medical conditions, seeks to make inmates over 55 years of age eligible for medical furlough, and to make those over 55 with less than one year remaining on their sentence eligible for home detention.

IDOC indicates that the inmate population decreased by 3,800 persons between March 1 and May 19, without breaking down why.75 This decrease may represent scheduled release of in- mates as their sentences come to an end.

For early release to be viable, it may require providing secure housing to releasees, at least in the short term. This is true of scheduled releases, too. In FY2018, there were more than 25,000 dischares just from IDOC (about 2,000 per week), and thousands more from the county jails.76 Assuming that pace has not slowed down, questions naturally arise upon release of inmates. With the need to self-quarantine after release, temporary housing will be crucial to ensure that returning citizens pose no risk to their families and communities

Even if there is a place for newly released persons to go, it may not advance public health for them to live with their aging parents, as often happens.

To be sure, housing requirements for parolees in Illinois presented barriers even before COVID-19.77 But practical questions about where newly released persons will go may explain why Illinois opted to focus on the other end of the continuum, curbing admission into crowded facilities. This also makes COVID-19 prevention practices in corrections easier to accomplish.78 On March 26, the same day the first case in the Illinois prison system was confirmed, COVID-19 Executive Order 11 suspended transfer of inmates from county jails to IDOC facilities.79 On April 10, Executive Order 22 further reduced admissions to the Department of Human Services treatment programs from all Illinois county jails.80 However, limiting transfers from jails to IDOC still poses crowding problems for jails, without reducing admissions to jails.

Illinois has implemented a number of other steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s correctional settings. Executive Order 19, issued on April 6, permitted IDOC staff to take paid medical leave for longer than 14 days to self-isolate or re- ceive required treatment.81 These executive orders helped to stem transmission of COVID-19 into the prison system, particularly by limiting transfers and admissions into IDOC facilities.

About the authors

  • Sage Kim, PhD, is an associate professor of health policy and administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) School of Public Health.
  • Timothy Jostrand is a 2019 graduate of the MPH in Health Policy and Administration program at the UIC School of Public Health.
  • Ali Mirza is the Wolff Intern with the University of Illinois system’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
  • Robin Fretwell Wilson, JD, is the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

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