INJUSTICE WATCH/WBEZ: Dying and disabled Illinois prisoners kept behind bars, despite new medical release law

INJUSTICE WATCH/WBEZ: Dying and disabled Illinois prisoners kept behind bars, despite new medical release law

By Carlos Ballesteros (Injustice Watch), Shannon Heffernan (WBEZ), and Amy Qin (WBEZ)

This article was produced by WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR news station, and Injustice Watch, a nonprofit news organization in Chicago focused on issues of equity and justice in the court system.

Phillip Merritt’s dementia is so advanced he’s lost the ability to speak. But with the help of his cellmates at Western Illinois Correctional Center, the 71-year-old still manages to get on the phone with his brother every few weeks.

“He has to have someone call me, and then I don’t know what to say to him because he can’t understand anything, so I’ll just talk,” said Merritt’s brother, Michael Merritt, in an interview. “All he can say are two words. … I mean, he’s just gone.”

Merritt’s deteriorating condition makes him a prime candidate to get out of prison under the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act, a pivotal criminal justice reform bill touted by Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois Democrats as an effective way to alleviate the state’s decrepit prison health care system, reduce the “staggering” costs of caring for ailing people in prison, and reunite families with frail loved ones.

Under the act — named after a decorated Army veteran who died of prostate cancer while incarcerated — Illinois prisoners can request early release if they’re terminally ill and expected to die within 18 months or if they’re medically incapacitated and need help with more than one activity of daily living, such as eating or using the bathroom.

But a year-and-a-half since the Coleman Act went into effect, an investigation by Injustice Watch and WBEZ found far fewer prisoners have been released under the law than expected, as the medical release process has become mired in the charged politics of criminal justice reform in the post-George Floyd era.

Behind the lower-than-expected numbers is the Prisoner Review Board, a state body appointed by Pritzker and confirmed by the Illinois Senate with final say on medical release requests.

As of mid-August, the board had denied nearly two-thirds of medical release requests from dying and disabled prisoners who met the medical criteria to get out of prison under the Coleman Act — including Merritt.

“I couldn’t believe it,” his brother said. “How could they deny him? He can’t even talk!”

More than half of the 94 denied applicants were older than age 60, and half had spent at least 15 years behind bars, according to an analysis of state prison data. At least two died in prison, including an 81-year-old who had been incarcerated for more than three decades and was scheduled to be released in 2025. Another man died five days before the board denied his request.

Meanwhile, the Prisoner Review Board has only granted 52 medical releases — a rate of fewer than three releases per month on average since board members began voting on those requests, records show.

Advocates say the board is undermining the Coleman Act and forcing ill-equipped prison staff to care for dying and disabled prisoners, even those with families practically begging to take them off their hands.

“Our prison system is now completely overburdened by people who pose absolutely no risk to public safety but are tremendously expensive to care for,” said Jennifer Soble, lead author of the Coleman Act and executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit legal group that represents dozens of medical release applicants.

“From a cost-saving perspective, from a government-efficiency perspective, and truly from a moral perspective, we need to be doing something differently here,” she said.

Jennifer Soble, founder and executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit that advocated for the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act and represents prisoners seeking release. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Donald Shelton, chair of the Prisoner Review Board, declined an interview request, but he defended the board’s record on medical release requests in an email sent through a spokesperson.

“Each case that comes before the board comes with its own set of circumstances to be studied and evaluated by members,” he wrote. “Due diligence is given by the board to every person who sets a petition before them.”

More medical releases could save taxpayers millions

It’s unclear exactly how many of Illinois’ nearly 30,000 prisoners could qualify for medical release. Under the Coleman Act, the Illinois Department of Corrections is required to keep track of that number, but department officials said they don’t have it yet. A department spokesperson said the data would be published by year’s end.

What is clear, from years of scathing reports from an independent monitor appointed by a federal judge, is Illinois prisons are unfit to provide health care for the thousands of aging, disabled and incapacitated prisoners.

Half of the state’s prison medical staff jobs are currently vacant. Prisoners with mobility issues suffer bed sores and frequent falls because no one is around to care for them. Some are even left sitting in their own waste, according to the monitor’s reports.

“Prescriptions go unrenewed, cancers go undiagnosed. In the worst cases, as everyone here knows, people die painful deaths because of the lack of care,” attorney Camille Bennett with the ACLU of Illinois said at a recent hearing on health care in state prisons.

Even this substandard care is expensive. Illinois paid $250 million last fiscal year to Wexford Health Sources, a for-profit company contracted to provide health care to state prisoners, according to state records.

Wexford’s 10-year contract expired in 2021, but the company continues providing care as Illinois seeks new bidders. Releasing more people under the Coleman Act could bring down the long-term cost of prison health care, said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, a legal clinic in Chicago whose lawsuits against the state led to the appointment of the independent monitor.

“The more prisoners there are who are medically needy, the higher the cost of caring for them, and the higher the bids will be,” Mills said.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, a legal clinic in Chicago that has sued on behalf of prisoners over the dismal state of health care in Illinois prisons.

1 Comment

  1. Julie Suter on August 30, 2023 at 3:51 pm

    Wexford Health Sources has been contracted at Illinois Department of Human Services and Treatment and Detention Facility in Rushville IL. My son, who is committed there for 18 years and has completed the treatment program has had a headache for 6 weeks and has not been sent out to see his neurosurgeon. He has an inoperable brain stem tumor, also on his 3rd ventricle and basal ganglia. He has a shunt that is malfunctioning and causing him to have hydrocephalus (water on his brain) and if untreated, his brain could collapse causing his death.

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