CHESTER — COVID-19 is spreading rapidly inside Menard Correctional Center.
As of Tuesday, the state is reporting a total of 25 active cases among employees and 60 among inmates. Another 25 employees and two inmates have recovered from COVID-19, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.
The first inmate tested positive on Aug. 13.
While other state prisons have also grappled with outbreaks, Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice, a Chicago-based organization that advocates for the humane treatment of prisoners, said she’s particularly concerned about the outbreak at Menard.
Many of the facilities that make up Menard, which opened in 1878, are outdated, lacking in proper physical space and ventilation as seen in newer prisons, Cates said. The facility has been cited on numerous occasions for failing to provide adequate health care. A new health care provider recently took over, but Cates said she’s not convinced that adequate resources have been dedicated to the prison to overcome past challenges. Also making the health situation more dire, she said, is that Menard tends to house inmates who are older, because many of the inmates sent there are serving longer sentences.
“It’s sort of a perfect storm of factors that make it a really scary place to see the numbers going up day over day the way they have been this week and last week,” Cates said.
IDOC maintains that it is doing what it can to limit the spread inside all of its facilities. The agency “remains deliberate and aggressive in its response to COVID-19,” said spokeswoman Lindsey Hess, in an emailed response to The Southern. Hess said that Menard is on medical quarantine status with restricted movement.
All staff entering the building must first submit to a health screening, including a temperature check. Staff and inmates are equipped with personal protective equipment and have access to antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, she said. Further, she said the facility activated its Incident Command Center, modeled after FEMA's National Incident Command System, to “set and achieve aggressive objectives” related to the outbreak.
COVID-19 numbers in Southern Illinois
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Offenders who develop symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 are assumed to be at high risk for the disease and are isolated and tested. Menard Correctional Center has dedicated a specific cellhouse as an isolation unit for COVID-19-positive offenders. To help manage outbreaks, Hess said the department utilizes point prevalence testing — that is, testing a group of people at once — to identify others who are asymptomatic but may have been exposed to the virus. This strategy offers a snapshot of the extent of the spread, she said. All asymptomatic offenders are quarantined and monitored for symptoms.
Hess said IDOC continues to review the latest scientific evidence and is in close contact with correctional agencies across the nation to identify best practices. “Our practices are modified based on new information and technology,” she said.
Across all of IDOC’s facilities, the state has reported a total of 438 positive cases among employees, 321 of which have recovered, and 743 cases among inmates, 478 of which have recovered. 14 inmates have died — 13 at Stateville Correctional Center and 1 at Pontiac Correctional Center, both in upstate Illinois.
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