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. Illinois Prison Project.

Criminal justice reformers celebrated the Coleman Act as a model for other states to follow. In a report last year, FAMM, a prominent national advocacy group, said the Coleman Act was one of the strongest “compassionate release” laws in the country.

But so far, the act has “failed to live up to its promise,” said Mary Price, FAMM’s general counsel and the report’s author.

Advocates want lawmakers to institute several changes to the Coleman Act to encourage the Prisoner Review Board to release more people.

Lawmakers should require board members to visit prison infirmaries to see firsthand the state of prison health care, advocates said. The board should also receive more training on how to evaluate the medical conditions of prisoners applying for release.

Advocates also want the state to provide prisoners who are applying for medical release with an attorney to argue their case. Guzzardi said he’ll advocate for funding for that in the upcoming fall legislative session.

Lawmakers should also allow prisoners to reapply for medical release sooner than currently allowed, said William Nissen, an attorney who represents prisoners pro bono, including on medical release requests.

Prisoners denied medical release currently have to wait six months before they can reapply, unless they get a special exemption from the board. Shelton has only approved three out of 10 requests so far, according to figures provided by the board’s chief legal counsel.

“If you’re representing a terminally ill person, then a large part of their remaining life is gone before you can even apply again,” Nissen said.

Nissen said lawmakers should also require the board to explain why they denied a medical release to “instill a certain amount of discipline in the decision-making process.” If board members have to articulate their reason for denying someone release, maybe they’ll reconsider the decision, he said.

Phillip Merritt’s attorney is in the process of refiling his medical release request. His brother Michael doesn’t know whether he’ll get out this time. And he hasn’t been able to reach Phillip in three weeks — the cellmate who had helped facilitate the calls was apparently transferred.

But he’s certain he and his family can give Phillip a more humane send-off than any prison could.

“At least he could go peacefully,” he said.

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