Clinic Attorneys Accelerate COVID-19 Mass Prison Release Efforts


By Shanice Harris

Social Justice Bluhm Legal Clinic Faculty

As coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, prison reform activists have been focusing on the dangers of the virus behind bars. While social distancing has become commonplace to stop the spread of the coronavirus in much of society, it’s virtually impossible to maintain in prison, and attorneys at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic have been focused on that paradox in their efforts to release detainees from Cook County jails, young adult prison, and detention centers.

Cook County jail, in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood, is home to the 5th-largest known cluster of COVID-19 cases in the US. According to the New York Times, as of April 30, the number of confirmed cases has grown to 940. The Cook County Sheriff’s office reported that those numbers include 148 correctional officers. Vanessa Del Valle, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, and Sheila Bedi, Clinical Professor of Law, have been working with other clinic faculty—including Professors Alexa Van Brunt and Tom Geraghty—and students to release individuals from Illinois prisons including Cook County Jail and Stateville Correctional Center. Collectively, they have filed 19 lawsuits against the Illinois Department of Corrections [IDOC]. “All three lawsuits are essentially asking the same thing. They’re on behalf of the same 10 named plaintiffs and in each of them we seek to represent a class of everyone who is in custody right now in IDOC or in the future will be in custody,” Del Valle said.

Del Valle and Bedi are advocating for the release of several different groups. “The first group of people are medically vulnerable because of they have underlying medical conditions, which have been listed by the Centers for Disease Control as making someone more prone to severe illness or death if they catch COVID-19. The next class is people who are medically vulnerable due to their age. Then we have a subclass of people who are statutorily eligible for electronic monitoring or home detention, based on their age and release date.” Del Valle highlighted that there are different avenues under the statute for people who are either close to their release date or who’ve committed low-level offenses to qualify for home detention or electronic monitoring. “Our last group of people are people who are within six months of their out date. The director of the Illinois Department of Corrections has discretion under statute to give what’s called ‘discretionary good time credit’, and he can give up to six months.” If the director grants these individuals the good time credit, Del Valle said, they would be free to return home—completing their time. “Why delay it six months during this global pandemic?”

At the beginning of April, a judge denied an emergency motion by the team. “A federal judge refused an emergency request by attorneys in our class action case, which demanded that state officials speed the critical release of thousands of at-risk, highly vulnerable prisoners who are in danger of contracting COVID-19,” Bedi said. “In doing so, the Court recognized the defendants and did not contest that there is ‘no way to make conditions safe within the congregate prison setting.’ Yet, without even an evidentiary hearing, the Court denied the request for urgent action to protect some of our state’s most vulnerable.”

In that same week, Governor J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order significantly expanding medical furlough and two of Del Valle and Bedi’s named plaintiffs received commutations.  James Money, 28, and Carl Reed, 59, are now home with their families. “[Money] had already served five years for a residential burglary and he was sentenced to be released in June of 2020,” Del Valle said. Money was diagnosed with stage three thyroid cancer, which makes him extremely vulnerable if he contracts COVID-19. “Also because of COVID-19, IDOC had canceled his chemotherapy appointments because they have been limiting movement and limiting the amount of activities…which obviously puts him at great risk.” Reed suffers from severe kidney disease, which requires dialysis three times a week. “He had eight years left on his sentence,” said Del Valle. “He had a petition for executive clemency pending, and [Reed] was granted his clemency petition.”

Bedi emphasized the huge help that other local organizations and the Law School students have provided during this time. “Students [have] worked incredibly hard on this effort—putting in many, many hours and functioning as junior attorneys,” she said. Emily Grant (JD ’21), Paul Jones (JD ’20), Terah Tollner (JD ’20), Luke Fernbach (JD ’21), Lucien Ferguson (JD-PhD ’22) all contributed to the effort. They also collaborated on a summary of recommendations to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review “which was presented over Zoom to over 55 diplomats from 44 Permanent Missions to the United Nations in Geneva.” Del Valle adds that the support of other community groups has been amazing. MacArthur Justice Center and Chicago Community Bond Fund are two of the organizations that have offered a hand to the clinic team. “We wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for them because we are getting a lot of information from local community groups and advocates who are really pushing [against the system].”

At the Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), attorneys have been working to release children from the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) and Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ). “We’ve been trying to work on closing prisons and getting kids out of prison for the last decade,” Julie Biehl, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the CFJC said. The center has long advocated that adult-style prisons are the wrong approach for helping juveniles, and that work has continued during this global pandemic. “We’ve just accelerated.”

In the past few weeks, the CFJC has created a website showcasing their public advocacy to get children out of the JTDC and IDJJ and home to their families. The website also highlights the letters the team have sent to officials—including Governor Pritzker, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans—demanding the release of these children to their homes. Biehl noted that’s just one part of the CFJC. Clinical Associate Professor of Law Uzomaka Nzelibe and Immigration Law Clinical Fellow Amy Martin are focusing on immigrant children in detention centers.

The CFJC has also been working with public defenders who are filing motions to get more release hearings on the schedule. And they’ve been successful. “When the coronavirus hit in Illinois, there was approximately 215 children inside our state system,” Biehl said. Now, [as of April 17] there are 135.” Progress with the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center has been more difficult. “We’ve been struggling to get transparency around the numbers at the JTDC in Cook County,” she said. “The prisons have said no more kids can come…the detention center is a little more complicated.”

Del Valle stressed that every Chicagoan should pay attention to the rising infection rates in prisons, even if they don’t personally visit the prisons. “One person catches it and it spreads like wildfire,” she said. “[Jails] are not closed environments—people are still coming in and out. There is a number of staff, guards, mental health counselors, and other people that work in the jails and prisons who enter and leave on a daily basis.” If an employee catches coronavirus, they can spread it to their families and their communities. “It’s not just a problem for jails and prisons, it’s a problem for the surrounding community.” Bedi and Del Valle stressed that the uptick in infections overwhelms the already scarce medical resources.

The staff at Clinic said they will continue to fight for their clients and do everything they can to bring them back home to their families during this unprecedented time. “Our fight continues,” said Bedi. “We are filing commutation petitions, working up the federal litigation, and we hope we can work collaboratively with the Governor’s office to save lives.”