Illinois COVID-19 in Detention

Background on Data | Federal | DOC | County Jails | ICE | Juvenile | Resources

(Updated June 15, 2020)


Below you can find information about the COVID-19 outbreak in sites of detention in Illinois. These include: six federal prisons, 51 state-managed facilities, 102 counties (most of which have a jail), 3 ICE detention facilities, and 5 juvenile detention centers managed by the state and 16 at the county level. Drawing on data from diverse public, nonprofit, and media sources, the below information provides an overview, with links to additional information. 

As of May 31st, and following a period of questionable reporting on data, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has reported that 140 incarcerated people and 30 staff had tested positive at the state’s hardest-hit federal facility, MCC Chicago.

As of June 9, 2020, the Illinois Department of Corrections reported that 231 incarcerated people tested positive for COVID-19. Thirteen people have died: 12 people at Stateville and 1 person at Pontiac.

Jails in Illinois, like those in other states, were uneven in reporting. The hardest-hit facility was in Chicago (Cook County), where, by June 15th, 526 detained people had tested positive and recovered, and 23 were currently positive. Since the epidemic began, 7 detained people in Cook County died: Jeffery Pendleton (April 7), Leslie Pieroni (April 10), Nicholas Lee (April 12), Karl Battiste, (April 19), Rene Olivo (April 19), Juan Salgado Mendoza (April 20) and William Sobczyk (May 4).

Cook County also reported that 397 staff tested positive. Including two Correctional Officers who died of causes related to coronavirus: Sheila Rivera (April 19) and Antoine Stewart (April 21); and one deputy. 

Background on data

Illinois demonstrates the challenges both of managing and documenting an epidemic behind bars. Given the mix of authorities involved, pace of the infection, and lack of preparedness, the state has seen two extreme examples of what can happen. The state-run prison at Stateville and Cook County jail (in Chicago) both experienced out of control, lethal impacts of COVID-19.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) regularly released information about those who have tested positive and those who have recovered (for both prisoners and staff), but to understand the spread of the epidemic over time, the best source is the non-profit Uptown Peoples Law Center.

Cook County releases information on their website, but for most jails, there is no public information whatsoever.  There are troublingly disparate accounts about conditions at the Federal MCC Chicago prison emerging through the media drawing on statements and legal filings from staff in Chicago, versus through the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

But Illinois also provides example of how bold state-level policies can be implemented. Governor J.B. Pritzker has issued strong statements regarding the seriousness of the epidemic behind bars, taken measures within prisons, and instituted policies to release prisoners. All of these actions have been undertaken in a context where prisoner rights advocates have pushed for policy changes through activism and legal measures; and critics of prison reform, including the Illinois Sheriffs Association and political opponents, have denounced efforts to reduce the incarcerated population.

A major challenge across detention facilities in Illinois is limited data related to testing. There is no systematic release of information regarding how many tests have been administered at the Federal, State or County-level facilities.

Federal Facilities

Illinois is home to six federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) detention facilities. As of May 31st, positive cases were only reported at two: MCC Chicago and a re-entry facility, the Central Territorial of the Salvation Army.

The data released by the BOP has raised questions about accuracy, that are illustrated through examination of conditions at MCC.

First, by the BOP’s own data, the number of incarcerated people at MCC was steadily rising since the first prisoner tested positive on April 14th, and then a sudden, dramatic and unexplained decline occurred on April 24th. Their numbers remained under 10, until suddenly leaping upwards of 100 positive tests about a week later.

Second, media reports relying on information from cases filed by Federal Prosecutors and insight from the union that represents officers who work at MCC, indicated sometimes shockingly different numbers than what was reported through the BOP site. The disparity is illustrated below:

Graph 1.1 Discrepancies in reporting of COVID-19 at MCC Chicago

Data: Media reporting and BOP; Graph: World Peace Foundation 2020.

The issues at MCC Chicago are also reflected in a sudden spike in official reporting from the facility, which jumped from 7 positive tests among incarcerated people on April 29th, to 48 on April 30th (Graph  1.2).

Graph 1.2 BOP reporting on MCC Chicago

Data: BOP via UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, Graph: World Peace Foundation 2020.

Journalists’ reporting in Illinois revealed two additional concerns about the BOP response. First, was a decision to transfer prisoners from the hard-hit MCC facility to Thomson, where there had not yet been any cases reported. The move prompted Illinois’ Congressional members U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill to release a statement on April 24, 2020.

The BOP also moved employees around to manage staff shortfalls in hard-hit facilities, but as discovered in one report in Pekin, IL, it was not clear if the staff were tested before they return to their home communities and facilities.

Illinois Department of Corrections

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) oversees 51 facilities of varying security levels: 7 maximum security; 14 medium security; 18 minimum security; 7 multi-security; 4 transitional security, and 1 mental health in patient treatment center. During the COID-19 crisis, Governor J.B. Pritzker has made a few bold policy moves that distinguishes the response in Illinois; however, there are data gaps that inhibit understanding of the full picture.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) on March 13th, halted visits to prisons. And on March 26th, the Governor halted transfers from jails to prisons, a move that was rebuked by the Illinois Sheriff’s Association.

By this point, however, the virus was already spreading. Nowhere were conditions worse than at the Stateville facility, some 35 miles south of downtown Chicago. The first 5 positive cases were announced on March 27th. By March 30th, sick prisoners from Stateville prison overwhelmed the local hospital in Joliet: more than 12 prisoners had been admitted and a doctor stated concerns that another 100 had fevers. On March 31st, the Governor announced the deployment of Illinois National Guard medical personnel to Stateville to support medical staff and help create an on-site quarantine area. By April 1, a Stateville prisoner had died; and reportedly 19 were admitted to several local hospitals.

Data suggests that positive cases began to indicate a plateau in mid-April; at which point, over 120 prisoners (10% of the total population) and 75 staff had tested positive, and six prisoners had died. However, by May 5th, the number of incarcerated people who had died at Stateville reached 12 (11 confirmed through IDOC and activists reported a 12th not yet included in official data). The below chart is from Uptown Peoples Law Center and helps visual the spread of COVID-19 at Stateville.

Graph 1.3 

Data: IDOC, Graph: Uptown Peoples Law Center, available at:

Correctional Officers who volunteered to help fill shifts at the hard hit Stateville facility complained about not receiving testing upon returning to their normal facilities and not receiving pay they were promised.

The prisoners’ rights advocacy community in Illinois has been a key part of alerting the public and demanding policy changes. An early alert was issued  on March 12, when the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison called for “a review of all people in Illinois prisons and jails who are elderly or infirm, with an eye toward providing medical furloughs or compassionate release to as many of them as possible.” A class action lawsuit was filed on April 2, 2020, and demanded that prisoners be released. Those involved included the Loevy & Loevy law firm, the Uptown People’s Law Center, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Black Lives Matter Chicago, the Chicago Torture Justice Center, the Community Justice & Civil Rights Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, the Illinois Prison Project and Equip for Equality.

Gov. Pritzker responded by trying to balance public health and criminal justice obligations. He announced April 5, that any inmate “who falls seriously ill with COVID-19 will receive available medical assistance to get through it, including an ICU bed and a ventilator if necessary. […] My administration will not be in the business of claiming one life is worth more than another.”

He followed by issuing an Executive Order on April 6, empowering the Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) with “discretion to use medical furloughs to allow medically vulnerable inmates to temporarily leave IDOC facilities, when necessary and appropriate and taking into account the health and safety of the inmate, as well as the health and safety of other inmates and staff in IDOC facilities and the community.”  By April 28th, almost 4,000 people had been released, sparking criticism from other state leaders. However, it is unclear how many of those people were already slated for release, and may not reflect pandemic response.

Nonetheless, by May 31st, all IDOC facilities reported positive test results among staff, prisoners, or both (Table 1.1).

Table 1.1

Data and Table: IDOC, May 31, 2020. Available at:

For updated information about facilities, see the Illinois Dept of Corrections and the Uptown People’s Law Center.

County Jails 

The picture in Illinois’ jails is unclear: of the state’s 102 counties, most of which have jails, we could find information related to COVID-19 infections for only thirteen (updated May 1).

Table 1.2

County Date Detainee Positive Staff Positive Confirmed no cases
Champagne 28 March Yes
Cook  (see below)  (see below) (see below)
Dekalb 20 March Yes
Dupage 9 April Yes
Hancock 11 April Yes
Lake 21 April 1 NA
Lasalle 7 April 2 total: 1 each at the jail & a juvenile center
Livingston 3 April Yes
Monroe 9 April **Parent of a detainee states there is a positive, sheriff will neither confirm nor deny.**
Pulaski 9 April 3

**see below, related to ICE detainees.

Tazewell 16 March Yes
Will 17 April 6 – total from the  Sheriff’s Office; 1 in correctional facility
Winnebago 26 April 1

Cook County (Chicago) jail emerged as one of the worst-impacted facilities not only in the state, but in the country. Information about the outbreak was reported by the Cook County Sheriff, whose office has regularly updated information about detainees and staff regarding those who have: tested positive, tested negative, and recovered. They also report deaths. The website provides information about measures the jail has taken to reduce the spread, including: testing all incoming detainees, all symptomatic and select asymptomatic detainees; and moving from double to single cells. The below Graph 1.4, from the Cook County Sheriff’s website, demonstrates the scale of the infection.

Graph 1.4

Data and Graph: Cook County Sheriff’s Department, June 15, 2020.

The outbreak at Cook County is well-documented by WBEZ and proPublica, whose reporting  details significant shortcomings in the Sheriff’s response to the crisis. Drawing on interviews with correctional officers, health care staff and inmates, they detail “a lack of personal protective equipment, inadequate testing and a spillover to community hospitals, as confusion and terror spread along with the virus.”

The County has made efforts to reduce the detained population. For example, as noted by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly in response to a case brought against the Cook County Sheriff, between March 9 and April 9, the population decreased by 1,175 detainees. By June 14th, the Sheriff’s department website reported:

  • 23 detainees in custody at Cook County Jail are currently positive for COVID-19.

    • This includes 0 detainees who are being treated at local hospitals
  • 526 detainees in custody are no longer positive and are being monitored at a recovery facility at the jail

  • 3,192 detainees have tested negative for COVID-19.

  • 7 detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 have died while receiving treatment at local hospitals.

The epidemic behind bars amplifies broader racial disparities in the infection rate: for instance, black Chicagoans are 30% of the population, but make up 75% of the jail population and 60% of all coronavirus deaths in the city (as reported by May 3).

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

Three jails in Illinois have ICE contracts: McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility, Jefferson County Justice Center, and Pulaski County Detention Center. As of June 15th, ICE reported positive cases at Pulaski County (45 total confirmed cases; 33 currently positive). ICE reported no staff cases in Illinois facilities, but there were 130 positive cases among staff unassigned to detention centers. 

Shortcomings in the ICE response in Pulaski illustrate the challenges of documenting the agency’s response. A lawsuit filed by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), revealed important information about conditions in the Pulaski jail. A legal declaration by Damon Acluff, the Pulaski County Detention Center warden, submitted on April 19th states that the coronavirus was introduced to the facility during an inmate transfer on April 1st (para 10, pg. 3). Acluff’s statement also provides insight into testing:  26 detainees and 17 staff members were tested prior to 4/19. Of those tests, 7 detainees and 6 staff members tested positive. The statement also reports that the facility was given 5 tests per day prior to April 17th, when the facility received 200 COVID-19 tests. Since the case was filed, the County has stopped releasing any information, as revealed in reporting by Molly Parker and Brian Munoz of the Southern Illinoisan on April 25. They write:

Jail fees bring in more than $8 million annually to the county of fewer than 5,500 people. […] “You know, it’s just, you know, there’s not just a whole lot more we can say at the moment without jeopardizing Pulaski County’s relationship with ICE and the ICE contract. That’s what I just wish everybody would realize,” said Rex Wilburn, Pulaski County Board chairman.

ICE releases information on its website regarding detained people who have tested positive; however, the lack of information about the scale of testing and disparities in what information is released add to suspicions that the figures seriously undercount the true impact of the epidemic. Several legal cases have been brought against ICE facilities in Illinois, including by the NIJC and the ACLU.

Additionally, there are 11 Illinois youth shelters that house unaccompanied immigrant youth and youth separated from their families at the US-Mexico border. This network of shelters is run by Heartland Alliance, a non-profit that receives federal funding through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. As of April 21st, 42 immigrant youth and two staff members at the Bronzeville shelter in Chicago have tested positive for the virus.

Juvenile Detention Centers

Illinois has 5 Department of Juvenile Justice youth centers and 16 county detention centers.

As of June 13th, 19 youth at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center tested positive. This marks an increase from April 27th, when there were 5 detained youth who tested positive for COVID-19, as well as 8 detention center employees and 23 employees at the chief judge’s office.  By April 23, 88 detained youth in the general population of the center were tested, all of whom tested negative


ACLU – Illinois: It works on issues related to CVOID-19 and immigrants held in jails,  and people detained in county jails, Illinois prisons or juvenile facilities.

John Howard Association independently monitors correctional facilities, policies and practices, and advances reforms needed to achieve a fair, humane and effective criminal justice system.

Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison  is a coalition of programs and educators dedicated to providing quality higher education opportunities for people who are incarcerated in Illinois. We strive to support our students as they build meaningful lives and prepare for a successful future in civic life. Equally important, we encourage public dialogue and action to reduce our state’s and country’s reliance on incarceration.

Illinois Prison Project We push back against excessive sentences in Illinois through direct representation, issue education, and by connecting clients with lawyers.

MacArthur Justice Center A primary focus of the MacArthur Justice Center during this time is ensuring the health and safety of those detained in jails and prisons.

Restore Justice Foundation advocates for fairness, humanity, and compassion throughout the Illinois criminal justice system, with a primary focus on those affected by extreme sentences imposed on our youth. See their Urgent Recommendations first issued on March 17th and updated on April 27th.

Uptown Peoples’ Law Center As noted above, they have been tracking the outbreak in IL prisons, and they actively represents prisoners in both class action matters as well as individual cases.

Student researchers who contributed to this report include: Grace Fagan, who is affiliated with the Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College; and Aida Zilkic, University of Rhode Island.

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