(The Center Square) – An Illinois lawmaker and a county sheriff are raising fresh concerns about Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to release inmates as the spread of COVID-19 continues in the state’s prisons, including questions about transparency.
Illinois Department of Corrections officials confirmed the release of some inmates on a list released by State Rep. John Cabello. However, officials said the list included people who were released for reasons unrelated to the governor’s executive order and the transmission of COVID-19.
The spreadsheet, titled “COVID FINAL list of early exits” listed the names of 761 inmates. The charges included murder, forcible sexual assault, armed robbery, making heroin, aggravated domestic battery, aggravated vehicular hijacking of a handicapped person and other violent crimes. Several of the people, including those convicted of murder, were directly commuted by Pritzker, according to the document.
The data was provided by Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey, who said his office found it on the Illinois Department of Corrections website after an exhaustive search. Subsequent searches turned up no such document.
“I don’t disagree with those that say there are those within our prison system that should probably be released,” Downey said. “We were told that these were going to be nonviolent. When you’re talking about armed robberies, murders, criminal sexual assaults, those individuals should not get released early based on the possibility that they could contract COVID.”
State Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, released specific data showing some of the names and offenses that were directly commuted by Pritzker, including Brian Harrington, who was convicted of murder in the 2007 slaying of Brad Berogan in Winnebago County. According to the released document, Harrington will turn 28 in July.
“If any of these folks re-offend and hurt somebody else, I will hold J.B. Pritzker personally responsible and I will make it my mission in life to ensure that the family members know that it was J.B. Pritzker that caused them this harm as well,” Cabello said.
Meanwhile, members of Pritzker’s own party are pressuring him to release more non-violent offenders at a higher pace.
“[J.B. Pritzker] let us help,” state Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, said on Twitter last Thursday, referencing that the Cook County Jail and Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill are COVID-19 hotspots. “We can work to find thousands of people who can be safely released to avoid the horrible fate we’re otherwise condemning them to.”
A criminal justice advocate with access to the data says most of the people on that list had nearly served their entire sentences, posing no danger to the community.
“To find out whether or not this is a good thing to do, you have to look at the facts of the offense and what this person has done since then,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center, who knows several people released and said they pose no threat. “They are not just releasing people wholesale.”
Mills agreed with Guzzardi that the Illinois Department of Corrections was moving too slowly in releasing thousands of inmates who medical professionals say are in danger from COVID-19 exposure.
Some of those commuted include Kwayera Jackson, a former football standout in Southern Illinois, who was convicted of murder in the death of his infant son. Supporters of Jackson have petitioned for his release, saying Jackson killed his son attempting to perform “strengthening exercises” on the 5-month-old boy. The document shows Jackson was released on April 10.
Also commuted by Pritzker was Victoria McCue, a Bradley resident convicted of murder in the shooting of her husband multiple times in 2005, according to the Daily-Journal. Downey says she passed away shortly after her release from cancer.
Multiple attempts to reach out to Pritzker’s office for comment were not returned.
Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lindsey Hess confirmed that the data was from the department’s website, but said it included information unrelated to recent affirmative releases due to COVID-19 concerns.
“The spreadsheet was initially intended to try to compile much of that information and other release data into one document,” Hess said Thursday. “But the data pull lumped together releases that are often included in the other links, along with releases that did not involve any affirmative steps by the Department and releases of individuals who received various types of permitted sentencing credit months and/or years ago. Also, the spreadsheet did not differentiate among the different releases in a way that is possible to follow accurately. As a result, to avoid misleading readers, the Department took down the spreadsheet. We are trying to determine if it’s possible to put together a spreadsheet that would be accurate and clear.”
The Chicago Tribune reported Pritzker had commuted the sentences of 17 prisoners since March 11, including seven people convicted of murder. The spreadsheet only lists 13 actions by Pritzker, four of those being on inmates convicted of murder.
The ACLU of Illinois criticized Cabello for releasing the names of those Pritzker commuted.
“It is sad to see an elected official playing politics with public health when responding to efforts to reduce the likelihood of further spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 inside Illinois prisons,” ACLU of Illinois Executive Director Colleen Connell said. “Illinois prisoners are dying because they are held in conditions that often are unsanitary and rarely allow for social distancing.”