With more than two dozen confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Illinois, a corrections oversight organization wants to ensure the health of people in prison isn't forgotten. Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, points out that staff, vendors and visitors are among the many people who are in and out of correctional facilities on a daily basis. She contends the health and welfare of those who are incarcerated must be considered and protected.
"The people who are in our prisons are just that, people," she stresses. "And they shouldn't be treated any differently as patients than anybody else.
"And we just want to make sure that that subset of our population is a group that people are looking out for and thinking about, as precautionary measures are taken."
In a statement, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) said it is modifying its current plans to ensure it's prepared for a potential COVID-19 outbreak — and people who may have been exposed to the virus or are experiencing symptoms are not allowed to visit a prison facility.
People in the Cook County Jail have been screened for the new coronavirus since the end of January, and jail officials say they've enhanced disinfecting and cleaning.
IDOC also says it is screening visitors for possible signs of exposure.
Vollen-Katz says the department needs to make its coronavirus protocols public to alleviate any confusion.
"If it becomes necessary to lock down a facility because there has been spread of disease and contagion is a concern, then making sure that information is public — so that people don't travel great distances to visit a loved one, only to be turned away," she states.
Last month, correctional centers in East St. Louis and Robinson were put on lockdown after dozens of people incarcerated there had flu-like symptoms.
In 2009, hundreds in custody at U.S. prisons were infected during the swine flu pandemic, which claimed more than 12,000 lives across the country.