Disease and Denial in Prison

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This letter was received from Stateville Prison in early April, reporting on conditions there during the COVID-19 crisis.q

I am a student in Northwestern University’s Bachelors program. Like many other students, I also work, though in my case, both my college program and my work take place inside a prison—Stateville. When I am not in my cell or studying, I am on the paint crew. In fact, I painted the Northwestern logo in the school building. Stateville is basically held together by coats of paint, so it’s a never-ending job. The “slap a coat of paint on it and keep going” approach applies here. Take COVID-19.

It’s odd how the news first reported that Stateville and Cook County Jail were national hotspots with COVID contraction rates 20 times the national average. Now you hear absolutely nothing about what’s going on here! Why? They have clamped down tight. They don’t want people to know what’s happening here. I believe the reason is because they don’t want anyone to know how many guys are actually sick here. If they do test, then they will have to report the results. However, if they don’t test, there is nothing to report.

A word about how they handle illness in here. It’s really quite backwards. When something like the flu or COVID comes in they blame us or blame our visitors.

Early in March, I noticed a lot of sick COs [correctional officers]. My boss came in after St. Patrick’s Day with a cough and light symptoms, but hadn’t been diagnosed. I got sick three or so days later. Seems fairly clear to me where it came from (mostly COs bringing it in). However, a few days later, after the bars and restaurants shut down, and suddenly a CO was diagnosed with COVID-19, the administration cut off visitations. Seems they thought visitors, and we inmates, were the carriers.

We aren’t the ones who come and go risking exposure every time. There’s a 30-foot wall around the entire prison. Every illness is brought to us. While it’s possible that one or two visitors who weren’t showing symptoms might have transmitted the COVID to some of us, that certainly isn’t what led it to bloom like a malevolent flower, spreading everywhere.

Slow and inadequate are synonymous with Stateville, so it’s no surprise that COVID has turned deadly here. At first the administration quarantined one cell house, B-house. The rest of the prison continued to run normally, nothing to it. Everyone going to school, to the yard, to health care. All this time, the virus was spreading.

I was sick, but going to work. I signed myself up for sick call, and told a surly (and sick) med-tech how I was feeling. She didn’t even take my temperature. She told me “it’s probably the flu, just drink more water” and told me to go. That’s the cure for the flu, drink more water? They called me out to work again after that. The irony was, this job was to paint signs telling people not to enter if they were sick and to wash their hands.

My boss knew I was sick. One particular day I was sweating like crazy, and cold too. I was coughing a lot, had a headache and body aches. He decided to walk me up to the health care and make sure I got my temperature taken. It was 100.6. “Not high enough to be tested for COVID… had to be 104 or higher.” If your temperature is 104, you’re in serious trouble! They did say I was clearly sick and sent me back to my cell. Two days later and much sicker, my boss called me out to work. I don’t know how I did it. I felt like I was going to pass out. I don’t remember finishing, just stumbling back to my cell and collapsing.

By late March, the administration decided to lock the entire prison down. First they stopped chores, but were still running yard. Even when they stopped that, they still had many men who were sick, including me, going to work all over the joint.

As the number of those sick grew, the administration brought in the National Guard to assist the medical staff. That’s been a joke. They weren’t running any medical passes or clinic call lines so we weren’t seeing any doctors or dentists. They weren’t testing for COVID, not even the sick guys, “unless you have a highly elevated fever.” Instead of helping the medical staff, the National Guard is doing security work because so many COs are calling in sick. They don’t want to be here, because the virus is galloping through this place.

Governor Pritzker got on TV and said that we’re all being given bleach and hand sanitizer. But over a couple of weeks, we have been given a grand total of two face masks and no gloves. They have begun passing out water with some small amounts of bleach in it, but the amount of bleach is almost non-existent. The COs walk around with a spray bottle of watered-down hand sanitizer before meals or meds. If you don’t get meds, you only get hand sanitizer twice a day. Meanwhile, the phone is passed from cell to cell. It is the filthiest thing here, guys breathe into it, cough on it, everyone touches it, and we have nothing to clean the phone or our hands with afterwards. We have close to nothing to clean our cell bars, toilets and walls.

I tried to arrange a protest against these things and for testing. I believed, and still do believe, that many here have COVID or had it but don’t know it. I tried to organize for a hunger strike. I sent around a paper to each gallery, but it didn’t reach most guys because we were on lockdown, so it couldn’t be disseminated properly or set up right.

I have an older cellie [cellmate] named James Scott. He is in remission from lymphoma, has diabetes and asthma. He is a walking example of vulnerable. Because I wasn’t quarantined, he inevitably caught what I had, but no one was taking any action. I was worried about him and tried to take care of him while I was sick myself. He could hardly breathe. I got him medical attention, and they eventually took him to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Joliet and put him on a ventilator, and he tested positive for COVID. Last I heard, he was not doing well. You might think that having a cellie who tested positive would get them to test me, especially as I was sick, but no! That’s not how things are done here at Stateville. I filed a grievance, but they did not respond to it. I still have not been tested.

Slow and Inadequate

Physical health is only part of living; while our physical health gets at least some minimal attention, there are no mental health checks here. Many guys are unstable in normal circumstances. We are facing a lot of fear and uncertainty. Some guys have family on the outside who are sick or who have died. Inside, there is no way for us to social distance. You cannot make yourself safe. Our neighbors and friends are sick and dying too. I don’t know what I’ll do if my cellie dies knowing he caught COVID from me!

We’ve always known we are the forgotten, deemed worthless by society. We see it every day, in the eyes of the staff, but it’s brought home in a hardcore way when you watch your friends, neighbors and brothers die and nobody cares. No amount of rehabilitation or change on our part matters … we don’t matter. We’re sick and we’re dying and no one cares. Do you?

Update – April 20, 2020

Things here are still dangerous. After a period of keeping us all in our cells, they have begun opening things up. This boggles my mind, we are not safe. They have let out the kitchen workers, health care workers, cellhouse workers, property workers, and most recently, the grounds crew. Most of this work is unnecessary. Surely lawn care is not more important than our health!

They are running short of disposable trays, so now they are using the regular trays with plastic. A lot of people touch those trays. The cellhouse workers are issued one pair of latex gloves per shift. They sweep, mop, pick up trash, touch bars, clothes, and everything else with them and then they pass our food trays out! The cross-contamination is crazy! The COs and staff wear the N95 masks. We get one a mask every other week, it seems—and no, they aren’t N95s.

I’m not doing too bad physically; emotionally is another story. My gallery in C-house is the hottest spot in the whole prison. We’ve had at least three deaths and four hospitalized. Alan Hartley, Larry Mac, Mr. Hayes, a man named Glen, Norwood Jessie, and a guy we called “Big Man” went to Saint Joseph [Medical Center]. At least eleven have died: Robert Simpson, William Holland, Joseph Wilson, Larry Steeples, Russell Sedelmaier, Ronald Rice, Larry Bourbon, Jessie Smith, Thomas McGee, a guy named Terran, and, on April 19, 2020, my cellie, James Scott.

That was a blow I wasn’t expecting. My heart is truly breaking. I knew him for years, and for nearly five, we were cellies. Stateville is the loneliest place in the world. It’s rare to find someone to get so tight with. He was my best friend, my brother—my family. He died alone in some hospital after I gave him the virus!

Please take care of yourself. Stay inside and stay safe. My warmest regards.



Mr. Ehlers’ experiences in Stateville Correctional Center highlight the dangerous conditions in our prisons and holding facilities.  As people take to the streets pushing for humanity and change, they too can be exposed to the dangers inside.

Those arrested here in CU on May 31 and June 1 experienced this firsthand. When State’s Attorney Julia Reitz set their bail at levels out of all proportion to the nature of their charges, our fellow community members spent days in crowded cells without personal protective equipment until the Champaign County Bailout Coalition was able to pay their ransom.   

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