26 Oct CO-EXISTING WITH COVID IN ILLINOIS PRISONS: Recommendations for Phase 4 Plans
Most regions in Illinois are in Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan. Bars, restaurants, gyms, and salons are open throughout the state, but thousands of incarcerated people still have no indication of when they might see their families or meet with their lawyers, or what criteria will be used to determine a return to visitation. Similarly, all facility activities that involve movement have been curtailed with no stated metrics for restoration and with variations from facility to facility. These activities include basic human needs such as showers, outdoor time, and access to hygiene products and other commissary items.
The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) needs to articulate a plan to re-introduce visitation (familial and legal) and other activities in facilities that do not have active COVID-19 outbreaks and/or in regions of the state that are not targeted for increased COVID-19 mitigations due to problematic trends in public health data.
Movement of any kind should be facilitated by adoption of increased testing; IDOC should test all staff and all incarcerated people at regular intervals. Data from tests could be used to develop milestones that, when met, could trigger increased movement.
Procedures for restoring visitation could mirror those of long-term care facilities. Visits in these facilities must be conducted outside and are limited to a safe number of people (based on the size of the outdoor space). New protocols could include:
- People must be at least six feet away from one another and masked.
- Visits are scheduled ahead of time to control volume and flow of people.
- Incarcerated people receiving visitors must be screened before visits, and visitors must have their temperatures taken.
- Temporary limits could be imposed on the number of visitors and also on the number of visitors on a visiting list.
Due to variations in implementation capacity, facility conditions, and COVID-19 outbreak statuses at each facility, centralized benchmarks should be published to provide a consistent target for each facility to meet. Families and the legal community can then develop a realistic, nuanced sense of when and how their visitation rights will be restored.
We recognize officials will need to monitor COVID-19 cases and trends in both prisons and in the communities they are in. We support this. Oklahoma had resumed visits (outdoors) but suspended them because of outbreaks.
FACILITY-BY-FACILITY REVIEW OF COMMUNICATIONS OPTIONS
To consistently mitigate the impact of varying communications challenges and assets at each facility, facilities should be centrally reviewed to assess options for increasing communications (including in-person visits, phone calls, and video visits) to the maximum level while maintaining social distancing. These reviews should include an assessment of phone, video, mail, and in-person visitation assets and challenges.
- While some facilities have problems with the video visitation technology, they may have the ability to re-think scheduling or length of the video calls. Currently, video calls are limited to 15 minutes; these calls should be extended to the full 55 minutes originally allowed.
- Opportunities for phone calls and time limits on phone calls should be extended. The access to phones varies tremendously by facility; this again should be a centralized directive.
OTHER STATES’ COVID-19 VISITATION POLICIES
These states are currently allowing in-person visitation (with specific policies):
Delaware: In-person visits must be scheduled one week in advance to allow the DOC to screen all visitors for COVID-19. The DOC shares the identities of all visitors with the Division of Public Health to allow for contact tracing. Only two adults and two children are permitted to attend visits, which last for one hour.
Maine: Indoor visits are allowed, and appointments must be made two business days prior to the scheduled visit. Residents are allowed one visit per week, and visitors coming together must be from the same household. Only two visitors are permitted inside the facility and they must wear masks during the visit.
Minnesota: In-person visits are suspended if a facility has two or more current positive COVID-19 cases. For facilities with one or fewer cases, visits must be scheduled 24 hours in advance and are limited to one hour. All visitors must wear face masks and comply with a COVID-19 screening and temperature check before entering the facility.
Missouri: In-person, no contact visits must be scheduled ahead of time. Visiting rooms can only be at 30% capacity, with two-hour visits, and two visitors (Minors under the age of 18 are not allowed.) per incarcerated person. Each incarcerated person is permitted two visits per month. All visitors must comply with a COVID-19 screening and temperature check before entering the facility. Face masks are required.
Ohio: Six facilities are holding outdoor visitation. Each resident is permitted two visitors per visit, and children under the age of 12 are not allowed. All staff, residents, and visitors must wear face masks at all times during the visitation process. Visitors must comply with a COVID-19 symptom screening and temperature check before entering the facility. The Ohio Public Health System monitors COVID cases in the counties that have prisons, and if a county is in a level three or four public emergency, officials suspend visiting at the prison.
ACCESS TO OUTDOOR TIME AND LEGAL MATERIALS
The IDOC must also articulate a plan for providing adequate access to outdoor time, law libraries, and Personal Property (often where legal materials are kept).
Illinois law requires at least five hours of outdoor time each week; this is essential to incarcerated people’s mental and physical health; and, given what we know now about the virus, we know it is possible to conduct outdoor activities more safely than indoor activities. Groups of people who are already exposed to each other (in showers, bullpens, and the currently restricted yard-times) could have more outdoor time in their groups without incurring additional health risks. The mental health risks of winter inside, on top of 7 months inside, may be greater than the risk of limited outdoor activity in the fall months.
In addition, access to legal materials for incarcerated people is critical. Individuals have motions to which they must respond. Currently, some facilities are managing limited movement for showers, yard-time, and other facility-based priorities; law libraries and legal materials in Personal Property should be added to the priority list at every facility where any limited movement is possible. Specifically, the IDOC must articulate a plan for restoring the following items at each facility based on that facility’s unique challenges and assets.
In addition to expanding necessary family connections, access to law materials, and time outdoors, there are other COVID-19 mitigations early in the pandemic that may be rethought as we learn to “co-exist with COVID-19” throughout Illinois:
- Commissary spending and pick-up opportunities have been dramatically reduced during COVID-19 and could now be safely and gradually expanded. Incarcerated people rely on the commissary for food, hygiene and other items that are necessary to their physical and mental health.
- We continue to hear frequent reports from many facilities that staff are not faithfully following COVID-19 mitigations, such as wearing masks. Accountability for implementing these mitigations must be increased.
- We also continue to hear reports that cleaning is inconsistent from facility to facility. Deep cleaning should be the norm at every facility, with time set aside to have cells and common areas deep cleaned.
- Moving people into new cells with new cellmates during the pandemic without a strong rationale should be discouraged. Many facilities have policies that involve recelling. These policies make it more difficult to allow increased movement within groups already sharing space and common areas.
While we acknowledge the challenges and the lack of certainty generated by COVID-19, we are deeply concerned that our state is behind in adapting to practices that balance one type of safety – safety from COVID-19 – with another type of safety – safety from long-term health and mental health consequences of extended and indefinite isolation.