FILE - Prison, jail, inmate, corrections

(The Center Square) – Experts Gov. J.B. Pritzker is relying on to help him manage the COVID-19 pandemic in the state sent the governor's staff emails in March that recommended coronavirus testing in prisons should be an area of focus, but a new survey released by a prison watchdog group found 89 percent of workers said they had not been tested prior to May.

Pritzker has said his management of the COVID-19 pandemic has been based on science and data from medical experts, including epidemiologists. Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show about March 21 at least three experts told the Pritzker administration that testing in prisons should be a focus.

Nigel Goldenfeld, a Swanlund Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with appointments in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Genomic Biology, wrote in an email to Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz and senior counselor Mollie Foust that testing should be focused on nursing homes and congregate living facilities such as group homes and prisons, among other groups. At the time Goldenfeld sent the email, the state's COVID-19 testing capacity was limited. 

The emails encouraged testing to prevent “super-spreaders.” Among that group was “Populations that are necessarily high density and cannot practice social distancing, such as prison population,” the emails said. “These will also be hot spots if … a guard gets infected.”

On March 30, Illinois’ prison system announced the first death of an inmate from COVID-19. As of June 9, IDOC reported thirteen inmates have died from COVID-19. 

In early April, the governor said he was releasing medically vulnerable inmates from prison.

When asked May 11 about testing in prisons, Pritzker said testing was underway.

“Well, [the Illinois Department of Corrections] is performing tests on staff on a regular basis and anybody that’s got any symptoms,” Pritzker said during the May 11 news conference.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the executive director of prison watchdog group The John Howard Association, said on Friday that recent survey results of staff and inmates show widespread COVID-19 testing hasn't happened in the state's prisons. The survey was conducted May 1 to May 27, with most responses between May 1 and May 6.

The majority of survey respondents (98 percent) said they were not tested for COVID-19 the week before completing the survey. Additionally, 89 percent said they had not been tested for COVID-19 at any time prior to May, according to The John Howard Association. 

“The people who are incarcerated were very clear that testing is very limited and the staff who responded to our survey said the same thing,” Vollen-Katz said. “The numbers we’re seeing I think it is a fair conclusion that we’re seeing very limited testing inside the Department of Corrections.”

Illinois Department of Corrections officials said it has focused its testing capabilities where needed based on guidance from experts.

"The department has been diligently strategizing with Illinois Department of Public Health officials and infectious disease consultants to control and mitigate the spread of the virus within our facilities," IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said in a statement. "We continue to review the latest scientific evidence and remain in close contact with correctional agencies across the nation to learn from their experiences. Our practices are modified based on new information and technology."

The department said it has performed more than 1,000 tests so far. There are about 40,000 inmates in IDOC prisons and more than 10,000 employees. 

"If an offender develops any symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 they are assumed to be at high risk for the disease, and pursuant to CDC and IDPH guidelines, these individuals are isolated and tested," Hess said in the statement. "To manage outbreaks, the Department utilizes point prevalence testing in asymptomatic and potentially exposed offenders. So far, more than 1,000 tests have been administered. Additionally, exposed asymptomatic offenders are quarantined and monitored for symptoms."

A March 23 email from the experts recommended having more than 630 tests a day for those prison workers and inmates who had symptoms. That email was sent weeks before the state’s testing capacity ramped up considerably. At the time, Pritzker repeatedly blamed the limited testing capacity in Illinois and other states on the federal government.

The most recent data from the Illinois Department of Corrections showed 198 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, 171 had recovered. The department reported 324 confirmed cases for IDOC inmates. Of those, 251 had recovered.

“If you have a number ... of positive cases in one facility, you can anticipate that the number of actual cases is much higher just based on the reality of the living situation inside the facility so without testing, robust testing we really don't have an accurate sense of how many people have been infected with the disease," Vollen-Katz said. 

In the March emails, Goldenfeld and Sergei Maslov, a professor and Bliss Faculty Scholar at the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois, wrote: “this might be a propitious moment to be considering reducing the prison population for minor offenses (eg drug possession).”

Pritzker said in May the department was only testing inmates who had symptoms prior to release from prison.

“There’s not a need to go test every single one of them,” Pritzker said at the time.

In the March emails, Goldenfeld and Maslov wrote that for communities with at-risk patients, every person should be tested before release.

Vollen-Katz said testing everyone before release would be a challenge for the Illinois Department of Corrections. However, she said it was necessary. She also said widespread testing isn't happening in the state's prisons.

“We need to know what the spread of the disease looks like inside facilities to better manage it and again it’s about the safety of the person leaving and the community that they are returning to,” she said.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Staff Reporter

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other statewide issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience, and previously hosted “Bishop On Air,” a morning-drive current events talk show.

Regional Editor

Brett Rowland has worked as a reporter in newsrooms in Illinois and Wisconsin. He most recently served as news editor of the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake, Illinois. He previously held the same position at the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb.