A federal judge Friday blocked a bid by state prisoners for an accelerated release or transfer amid the coronavirus, finding state officials’ current processes don’t violate their constitutional rights.
U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow denied requests for emergency orders that would have ordered Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Robert Jeffreys, acting director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, to release or move prisoners to their homes to self-isolate in medical furlough.
“Plaintiffs have provided no convincing reason for a federal court to intrude here and now — either to issue a blanket order for the release of thousands of inmates or to superimpose a court-mandated and court-superintended process on the mechanisms currently in place to determine which IDOC inmates can and should be safely removed from prison facilities at this time,” Dow wrote in his 48-page opinion.
Releasing inmates “requires a process that gives close attention to detail, for the safety of each inmate, his or her family, and the community at large demands a sensible and individualized release plan — especially during a pandemic,” Dow wrote.
“Even if the steps Illinois has taken and the pace with which they are proceeding is not exactly what [p]laintiffs want, those steps and that pace plainly pass constitutional muster.”
Filed on April 2, the complaint sought class status for six categories of inmates ranging from people with underlying health problems to people with fewer than 90 days left on a sentence for a Class 1 or Class X offense.
It alleged the state had not “acted with the urgency or decisiveness that is required to quell this oncoming crisis,” putting inmates, IDOC staff and the general public at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
“Even if they had a colorable claim, [p]laintiffs’ request for release is untenable on a class-wide basis because the possibility of release is an inherently inmate-specific inquiry,” Dow wrote. “Other considerations — such as the public interest from the potential release of thousands of inmates — weigh heavily in the analysis, too.”
The ruling comes after Pritzker on Monday issued an executive order allowing some prisoners to be freed from Illinois prisons under expanded furlough rules, which Dow said demonstrates that the state is “constantly evolving procedures increasing the number of inmates released on a daily basis.”
As of Friday, 644 inmates across state correctional facilities have been released because of the virus. There were 232 confirmed cases of the virus — 139 inmates and 93 staff members — across 14 state correctional facilities, according to the IDOC’s website.
The ruling also comes on the heels of a ruling Thursday that denied the immediate release or transfer of detainees from the Cook County Jail, but called for new policies to combat the virus behind bars.
In Mays v. Dart, No. 20 C 2134. U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly approved a temporary restraining order that gives Sheriff Thomas J. Dart through the end of the weekend to carry out a range of virus-prevention practices, but did not order him to move detainees to other forms of custody.
Dow, in Friday’s ruling, cited Mays, holding state inmates could seek emergency relief through state courts — the same process outlined by Kennelly — but had not.
“Petitioners have made no effort to establish that the trial courts in the numerous other counties where they are housed are unavailable and were so last week when this action was filed,” Dow wrote, adding that they also did not make an effort with the Illinois Supreme Court.
“Had that Court exercised its authority to take action on these matters, various abstention doctrines would have come into play and might have compelled (or at least counseled) this Court to stand down,” Dow wrote.
The state was represented by Attorney General Kwame Y. Raoul and Civil Litigation Deputy Attorney General Douglass R. Rees.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.
Attorneys and advocates involved in the suit include Sheila A. Bedi, Luke Fernbach, Emily M. Grant and Terah Tollner of the Community Justice Civil Rights Clinic; Vanessa del Valle of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center; Jennifer Soble of the Illinois Prison Project; Alan Mills and Elizabeth Mazur of the Uptown People’s Law Center; Sarah Grady of Loevy & Loevy; and Amanda Antholt and Samantha Reed of Equip for Equality.
They could not immediately be reached for comment.
This case is James Money, et al. v. J.B. Pritzker, et al., No. 20 C 2093.