The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, the End IL Prison Lockdown Coalition stands in solidarity with all incarcerated people in Illinois, who are suffering double punishment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Submit your opinion to

Those currently incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) are suffering a double punishment. Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, IDOC has failed to implement uniform protocols and guidelines to protect incarcerated people and prison staff from coronavirus. 

Instead, they are relying on an unending and extreme prison lockdown, where people are unable to access basic necessities such as time outside, the commissary, law libraries, medicine, showers and educational programming. In turn, the state is depriving people in prison of the few rights and privileges they had prior. 

IDOC is simultaneously weaponizing coronavirus against people in prison — while refusing to implement simple health protocols to protect them. And while vaccine distribution in Illinois prisons brings hope, an institution that has failed to protect people thus far should not be blindly trusted to do so now.

On March 20, 2020, Anthony Ehlers, incarcerated in Stateville Correctional Center, began to show coronavirus symptoms. After relaying fears that he had the virus to the prison staff, they returned Ehlers to his cell with his cellmate James, an older man in remission from lymphoma. Not long after, James contracted the virus and died. 

Ehlers was exposed to the virus by a correctional officer in the prison. He remembers that the officer “was still going to bars before [the state] closed down. He came into work with a cough and light symptoms after drinking out on St. Patrick’s Day.” Even with extreme lockdowns limiting the movement of those incarcerated, the virus is brought in by staff and then continues to spread through multiple unsanitary and careless practices. 

Ehlers explains, “[Correctional officers] do not have the proper PPE, they do not change their gloves to shakedown. They come into our cell, touch your cup, your bowl, your bedding and your pillow, all with filthy gloves that have been worn for hours! It is unsanitary at best, and downright dangerous at worst.” 

Given the failure to properly implement CDC guidelines and a lack of oversight from Gov. Pritzker’s  office, Ehlers maintains “James died from their neglect.”

That was in March 2020; now, having had roughly a year to implement effective coronavirus precautions, conditions in Illinois prisons have largely remained the same or deteriorated even further. While Illinois prisons lack uniformity in their virus response, prisons across the state have been on lockdown — meaning people are locked in cells no larger than a parking space for days on end. 

Faulty communication systems with loved ones, limited or no access to time outdoors or educational programming, spoiled food, restrictions on the commissary and the continuing spread of the virus are among the circumstances endured. People are often forced to choose between purchasing food from the commissary or purchasing cleaning supplies. Prisoners are also forced to choose how they spend their extremely limited time outside their cells by either calling a loved one or taking a shower. 

In October 2020, Ehlers explained, “We do not get anything to clean the phones with. The phones here are hand-held, push-button phones. It is plugged into a jack and passed back and forth, from cell to cell, hand to hand. Nothing is more filthy than those phones, and we are given nothing to clean them with.” 

The dangerous and sometimes fatal effects of these unsanitary practices are evident in the alarming case rate. With at least 10,360 known cases of coronavirus in Illinois prisons or 2,806 cases per 10,000 people incarcerated, the case rate in Illinois prisons is 3.1 times the rate in Illinois overall. The death rate is 1.4 times the rate in Illinois overall. 

It is important to understand two things about these numbers — with inconsistent testing, both case and death rate are underreported, and even so, reported cases are alarmingly high across state prisons. In the spring, large outbreaks hit certain prisons including Stateville Correctional Center, the prison closest to Chicago where Anthony Ehlers is incarcerated, while other prisons reported low numbers.

Now however, months without uniform protocol or oversight have resulted in outbreaks in numerous prisons across the state. As of Feb. 11, Jacksonville Correctional Center in western Illinois reported 473 incarcerated people and 167 staff have tested positive for coronavirus. Taylorville Correctional Center — located in central Illinois — reported 455 incarcerated people and 99 staff tested positive, with other prisons throughout the state showing similarly high numbers. 

People in prison are being infected and dying at frightening numbers; Yet still, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has failed to address the crisis. Instead, the governor has allowed the Illinois Department of Corrections to implement punitive protocols, such as limited access to food, cleaning supplies, showers, medicine, educational programming, legal materials and time outdoors. 

These so-called safety protocols have failed to protect the physical and mental health of our community members in prison. Without the inclusion of incarcerated people, #AllInIllinois is merely the othering and further abandonment of incarcerated people under the state’s “care.” Setting a rational timeline, based on state safety guidelines, to end the lockdown in IDOC and releasing those at high risk of dying from the virus will save lives. 

“COVID-19  is not gone from this place, and it is not done killing men here,” warns Ehlers. Without immediate action, we are sentencing our community members, a majority of whom are from Cook County, to death.

is a group of activists, loved ones of the incarcerated, and incarcerated individuals working to end the extreme and unending prison lockdown in the Illinois Department of Corrections.