Parents, advocates urge Pritzker to release inmates as prison coronavirus cases skyrocket



Parents and advocates of people incarcerated for violent crimes in Illinois prisons urged Gov. J.B. Pritzker during a virtual news conference Thursday to release their loved ones as cases of the coronavirus skyrocket.

As of Thursday afternoon, 134 inmates and 86 prison staff have tested positive for the virus. Two inmates have died from COVID-19 so far and two dozen more are hospitalized.

Illinois is one of 16 states that doesn’t allow incarcerated people to earn parole. That means most of the 36,000 people incarcerated in Illinois — 20% of whom are age 50 or older — are at risk of having their criminal sentence turn into a death sentence if they contract the coronavirus inside prison and don’t recover.

“Our calls for release must include everyone, including those who’ve served many years after having been convicted of violent crimes and are ready to return home,” said Alex Ding, an organizer with Parole Illinois, a criminal justice group that hosted Thursday’s news conference.

Pritzker signed an executive order Monday that allows the Illinois Department Of Corrections to furlough “medically vulnerable” inmates. More than 500 prisoners have been released by IDOC, according to Pritzker’s office.

But advocates warn that Illinois prisons mostly house people serving time for violent crimes and aren’t eligible for early release — which could prove deadly during the pandemic.

“Illinois no longer has the death penalty, but it does now with COVID-19,” said Brian Bronis, the father of 39-year-old Matthew Echevarria, who’s imprisoned at Menard Correctional Center and has served nearly 18 years of his 50-year sentence for murder.

Lawyers with the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield and The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago are preparing to file a post-conviction petition to challenge Echevarria’s sentence.

“Not every family has the privilege of a legal team,” Bronis said. “We are angry, alone and have no trust in the system like IDOC that treats our children like they are less than human.”