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COVID-19 Outbreak Lingers At Pekin Prison; ACLU Monitoring Prison Facilities

The Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin
David Mercer

Vivian Reed wants the Federal Bureau of Prisons to be more forthcoming about conditions at the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin amid a second COVID-19 outbreak.

“The BOP is not giving out information that they should give during the crisis, during the pandemic,” said Reed, whose husband, Cleophus, is a Pekin inmate who tested positive for the coronavirus last month. “I just want to make sure that what is listed on the website about what they’re telling the general public is actually what they're doing.”

One step the prison has taken to thwart the spread of COVID-19 is closing the facility to visitors. But Reed said while her husband and other inmates have received extra telephone minutes during the pandemic, that doesn't make up for a lack of face-to-face time with family members.

“They haven't had visits since March, and I feel like even though with social distancing and stuff like that, people still need to be able to connect with their loved ones on the outside,” she said.

As prison facilities across the state wrestle with how to handle COVID-19, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is monitoring conditions at all prisons and jails – and finding the coronavirus is nearly impossible to control, with some efforts having negative consequences.

“These kinds of crowded settings, by their design, don't allow people to move around. They don't allow people to social distance and often do not have the kind of sanitary materials – soap, hot water, masks – that all of us depend upon,” said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois. “It is really impossible for people who are detained in these facilities to avoid getting this disease, especially as fast and quickly as it spreads once it's inside of a facility.

“But I think in addition to that, what we're really seeing now as we look around at the cumulative effects of lockdowns and restricted movements, they cause both kinds of problems: in terms of sanitation and other things, but also serious mental health damage.”

Yohnka said the large prison populations pose a significant challenge for inmates to get adequate health care.

“We incarcerate too many people, and one of the things that we've done, of course, is that we've built these large facilities and then we've overcrowded them,” said Yohnka. “That doesn't permit people to be distanced, to be separated. What it often means, too, is you can't even provide good services inside those facilities.”

According to the COVID-19 tracking page on the BOP website, currently 94 Pekin inmates and 12 staff have the disease; that's down from more than 200 active cases there a month ago. In response to a WCBU inquiry, Pekin prison officials merely referred to the pandemic plan detailed on the website. Multiple attempts seeking comment from the American Federation of Government Employees, the union for Pekin prison workers, were unsuccessful.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.