An hydroalcoholic hand sanitizer is pictured, on March 5, 2020 in Paris amid a spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavius. (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)

Illinois Prisoners Say They Don’t Have Access to Hand Sanitizer, Cleaning Supplies or Soap

Illinois state prisons are a coronavirus time bomb, activists warn.

BY Sarah Lazare

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Advocates are calling for immediate decarceration in response to the crisis.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) has been telling the press that it is passing out hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and antibacterial soap to people incarcerated in its prisons as a preventative measure against the spread of coronavirus.

But two people incarcerated in Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill., report that, as of this morning, they had received none of these, and one described being crammed into crowded and unsanitary conditions that raise concern about exposure to the deadly virus, which already has 288 reported cases in Illinois. There are currently 1,173 people incarcerated at the prison.

In These Times spoke to and reviewed the call notes of a small advocacy organization. Two prisoners told the organization that prison authorities are not passing out cleaning supplies. Both sources added that the commissary is not selling cleaning supplies and that prisoners are forced to buy 4 oz. bottles of shampoo to clean their cells. (The names of these individuals are being withheld to protect them from retaliation.)

Alan Mills, the executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, which represents people incarcerated across Illinois, corroborated the shortage, saying he has heard of it from prisoners and “in communication with the state.”

“It’s not just Stateville—it’s a statewide problem,” he tells In These Times. “Unfortunately, IDOC seems to have a severe shortage of soap and sanitizer, so despite their stated goal of getting extra soap and sanitizer to prisoners, they do not have sufficient quantity to hand out to prisoners statewide. This does not bode well for overall preparedness should the virus hit prisons.”

IDOC did not immediately return a request for comment.

In another indicator of the shortage, the Northwestern Prison Education Program and the School of Restorative Arts at North Park University are currently fundraising to send sanitation supplies into Stateville. “We have been informed that Stateville will accept any donations we can make to help keep those in its custody safe,” the first group said on Facebook. “They are in need of hand sanitizer, bars of soap, cleaning wipes, etc.”

One of the incarcerated sources at Stateville said that about 300 people are sent to the same shower and are forced into close proximity. He described a phone that is passed around from one person to the next without being sanitized, as well as lines for meals, where food is more scarce.

The World Health Organization recommends that, to protect against coronavirus, individuals “regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water,” and maintain social distancing of at least three feet (six feet is broadly considered safer).

The same source also expressed concern that kitchen workers may be sick and exposing others to illness. He said he saw a prisoner who works as a cook leaving the nurse’s station, and an officer told that individual he must avoid contact with people. However, that sick cook shares a cell with someone, and a phone with everyone in the gallery, making such precautions impossible, that individual noted.

IDOC’s response to the crisis has been largely punitive: Illinois authorities suspended all visits to prisoners across the state starting March 14. One of the incarcerated sources noted that prisoners are eager for more access to phone and video calls with their loved ones.

Instead, advocates are calling for immediate decarceration in response to the crisis. According to Mills, “There is no way inside a prison system to do the simple things everyone has to do, like social distancing, washing hands frequently and isolating people who have symptoms—none of that is possible inside prisons. Should the disease jump the wall and go into prisons, there is no way to contain it.”

There is reason to be concerned. The Intercept reports that coronavirus has now arrived at Rikers Island prison in New York, where on Tuesday a New York City Department of Correction employee died from a confirmed case of coronavirus. Meanwhile, prisoners are “locked in filthy intake rooms with dozens of other people for days on end, confined to housing units or dorm-style sleeping areas with scores of other people, dependent on staff for soap and on correction officers for permission and an escort to visit a medical clinic.”

As the Chicago Sun-Times reports, in 2019, there were nearly 7,800 state prisoners who were 50 and older, accounting for 20% of the population in Illinois prisons.

“Over the past 20 years, we’ve imposed longer sentences with fewer opportunities to get out. The result is a lot of older, sick people in prison who are particularly vulnerable,” says Mills. “The only solution is to let people out of prison.”


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Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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