About 1,000 Illinois inmates scheduled for release in the next nine months could soon be set free as part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit filed last spring amid a growing COVID-19 health crisis in state lockups, a lawyer involved in the case said Tuesday.
The settlement calls for the release of low- to medium-risk inmates who are within nine months of their release date and are eligible for certain good-time credits, according to a court document filed Tuesday. The Illinois Department of Corrections agreed to “use its best efforts” to process the awards within the next month, the document states.
Attorney Sheila Bedi said the settlement applies to about 1,000 inmates. She also said she believes thousands more inmates should be released.
“It remains a public health crisis,” Bedi, who is a professor at Northwestern University, told the Chicago Tribune. “It is still very much a real issue.”
In a statement, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh said the Department of Corrections has consistently reviewed prisoner records to find those eligible for 180 days or less of earned discretionary sentencing credit.
"Since the March 9, 2020 Gubernatorial Disaster Proclamation based on this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the Department has been prioritizing these eligibility reviews in an effort to increase the availability of space for quarantining or isolating the offender population in accordance with CDC guidelines and limit the number of men and women who may be exposed, but always with a view to ensure public safety,” Abudayyeh said Tuesday.
A consortium of Chicago civil rights attorneys and community activists filed the lawsuit seeking the release of as many as 13,000 inmates. The attorneys argued that prisons "pose a particular risk of spreading the COVID-19, with catastrophic consequences not just to the prisoners and staff, but also to their communities and the hospitals that serve them.” The lawsuit alleged that Pritzker and others had not moved quickly enough to identify vulnerable prisoners for early release.
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At the time, U.S. District Judge Robert Dow denied emergency relief, saying that he found “no convincing reason for a federal court to intrude” on the state's efforts to contain the problem. In a 48-page opinion last year, Dow said that the stakeholders had taken steps that “plainly pass constitutional muster” to contain the spread of the virus.
Since the pandemic began, 87 inmates and one staff member have died of COVID-19 and nearly 11,000 inmates and 4,200 staff members have tested positive, according to Illinois Department of Corrections statistics. The rate of deaths has slowed since the prison system began universal testing and voluntary vaccinations for inmates and staff.