Law360 (April 13, 2020, 9:32 PM EDT) -- An Illinois federal judge on Friday refused to order the temporary release of nearly a third of the state’s prison population in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, saying the inmates aren’t entitled to such extraordinary relief “even in these extraordinary times.”
A proposed class of Illinois Department of Corrections inmates have asked the court to temporarily allow certain groups of prisoners to go on either early release or medical furlough to lessen their chances of contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated. But U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr. said the inmates are requesting relief only a three-judge court can order, and the state is already implementing procedures to allow increasing numbers of inmates to be released from prison.
“Even if the steps Illinois has taken and the pace with which they are proceeding is not exactly what [the inmates] want, those steps and that pace plainly pass constitutional muster,” Judge Dow ruled. The inmates have provided “no convincing reason for a federal court to intrude here and now,” he said.
Alan Mills of the Uptown People's Law Center, who represents the inmates, told Law360 on Monday that he and his clients have “no intention of going away” even though Judge Dow denied their request for temporary restraining order.
“The prisoners who are there need to be protected,” he said.
Mills said he hopes the state “will read the tea leaves” and recognize that the court was calling on it to use all of its available powers to safely release the inmates.
“The most damning thing is that the governor has given the [IDOC] expanded medical furlough authority, but as of Thursday afternoon, the department has yet to furlough anyone through either its original authority or its expanded authority,” he said.
Representatives for the state did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.
The group of 10 inmates filed two proposed class suits earlier this month seeking the release of around 12,000 prisoners divided into six subclasses. One suit, against Gov. J.B. Pritzker and IDOC Director Rob Jeffreys, claims that the state is violating their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act. The other, against just Jeffreys, asks the court to issue writs of habeas corpus for their release from custody in light of their allegedly violated constitutional rights.
Both suits claim that the IDOC inmates are particularly vulnerable to catching the novel coronavirus given their prison setting, and the state has inadequately responded to that heightened risk. But Judge Dow said part of the reason he won’t grant the prisoners’ request for temporary release is because they likely won’t succeed on their constitutional claims.
“[T]he record does not support the notion that [state and prison officials] are showing deliberate indifference to the inmates’ plight or discriminating against inmates with disabilities,” he said.
Even if the inmates had a plausible claim, they likely wouldn't be able to receive classwide relief because “there is no way to decide which inmates should stay and which inmates should go, without diving into an inmate-specific inquiry,” Judge Dow said.
The public interest would “surely” be served by avoiding a widespread coronavirus outbreak, particularly in areas presenting heightened risks of spreading the illness, Judge Dow said.
The state has “good reasons” to work to reduce the prison population, as the public interest is served by avoiding widespread COVID-19 outbreaks, Judge Dow said. But on the other hand, “every release order carries with it some risk to the rest of the community,” including an inmate’s potential exposure while incarcerated and the inmate’s risk of passing the virus to a more vulnerable resident, he said.
Public interest also requires courts to approach a federal court’s intrusion into a state’s core activities “cautiously and with humility,” Judge Dow ruled. The judge said he’d be prepared to form at three-court judge to take up the inmates’ complaint if the state government “sat silently during a pandemic,” but the lack of a plausible case and other doubts in the case reinforce his decision not to grant their request for relief.
The inmates are represented by Alan Mills, Elizabeth Mazur and Nicole Schult of the Uptown People's Law Center; Jennifer Soble of the Illinois Prison Project; Sheila Bedi and Vanessa Del Valle of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center; Amanda Antholt and Samantha Reed of Equip For Equality; and Sarah Grady of Loevy & Loevy.
The governor and Jeffreys are represented in the civil rights suit by Nicholas Staley, R. Douglas Rees and Colleen Shannon of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. Jeffreys is represented in the habeas corpus suit by Gopi Kashyap and Katherine Doersch of the attorney general’s office.
The cases are Money et al v. J.B. Pritzker et al., case number 1:20-cv-02093, and Money et al. v. Jeffreys et al., case number 1:20-cv-02094, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
--Editing by Gemma Horowitz.
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