Civil rights attorneys are threatening a class action against Illinois unless the state releases thousands of “vulnerable” inmates.
Civil rights advocates in Chicago have filed a series of lawsuits to release state inmates at elevated risk of contracting coronavirus.
The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the initiative may be among the most serious legal challenges related to the ongoing pandemic. Civil rights attorneys are challenging Illinois on numerous fronts and have proposed a class action against Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Corrections Department Director Rob Jeffreys. Together, activists say Pritzker and Jeffreys haven’t “[acted] with sufficient urgency.”
“Without intervening from this court, people are going to die unnecessarily,” the proposed class action states.
Attorneys and advocates involved include the Uptown People’s Law Center, Black Lives Matter Chicago, the Chicago Torture Justice Center and the Community Justice & Civil Rights Clinic at the Northwester Pritzker School of Law. Also involved, says the Sun-Times, is the Loevy & Loevy law firm.
But on Thursday, Gov. Pritzker—a Democrat—suggested he’s open to negotiations. In fact, Pritzker said he’s opened talks between corrections officials and inmates’ attorneys to “lessen the pressure within” prisoners.”
“We want to do, I think, what activists want,” Pritzker said in a news conference.
The proposed class action includes at least 10 Illinois prisoners. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, their offenses are serious, ranging from murder to narcotics trafficking. But attorneys say the inmates have serious underlying health issues which could turn incarceration into a death sentence.
Novel coronavirus, as is now widely known, tends to present significantly more serious symptoms among older adults as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions, like asthma and diabetes. Preliminary studies from Italy, for instance, showed that as many as two-thirds of all coronavirus-caused deaths were linked to patients who had three or more underlying conditions.
The class action seeks relief for prisoners in six different categories. Among the categories are prisoners with pre-existing conditions, as well as those who are scheduled to be released within the next half-year.
Another category, says the Sun-Times, is for people who have less than 90 days to serve on sentences related to Class 1 or Class X offenses—the two most serious categories within the Illinois criminal justice system.
“Nearly 37,000 people are incarcerated in Illinois, living in close quarters where all aspects of daily life, including healthcare and food service, take place,” the lawsuit states, comparing prisons to “petri dishes for spreading deadly epidemics.”
Activists say that, if their requests are acknowledged and accepted, up to 13,000 prisoners could have their cases reviewed.
Northwestern University law professor Sheila Bedi—who the Chicago Tribune says is “one of the key architects” of the legal action—said on Thursday that activists waited weeks for Illinois to take action.
“Filing this lawsuit is absolutely a last resort,” Bedi said. “The progress here has been incredibly slow. There is no time to waste.”
Bedi told the Tribune that many inmates who meet the class action’s relief criteria have homes they could safe self-quarantine in.
“The state law gives them the ability to be out right now,” Bedi said. “Many have homes to go to where they could safely self-quarantine.”
“The fact that the state has the ability to right now let people out, let people go home, but is refusing to do that equals a constitutional violation,” she added. “The last time there was an epidemic like this, we didn’t have over 2 million people behind bars.
“If they don’t immediately act, thousands of people could die.”