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COVID-19 in Illinois Prisons

A public statement on Governor Pritzker’s vaccine mandate for prison staff

August 9, 2021

Recently, Governor Pritzker announced that all staff working in Illinois prisons will have to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by mid-October. Sadly, rather than engaging with the governor, AFSCME, the guards' union, immediately announced that it was opposed to any requirement that staff be vaccinated. The union instead proposed that it will continue to educate staff, in the hope that more staff will agree to vaccinate voluntarily.

The undersigned organizations fully support the governor's mandate regarding vaccinations for prison staff. Attempts to persuade staff to voluntarily be vaccinated have been an utter failure. In the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), approximately 70% of prisoners are now fully vaccinated for COVID, however less than half of IDOC staff have chosen to be, despite six months of cajoling by prison officials, AFSCME, and public health officials. In some prisons, as few as 5% of the staff has been vaccinated. It is long past time for a mandate.

Prisoners throughout Illinois suffered from a virtual lockdown for over a year as the pandemic spread through prison after prison. The effects of such prolonged isolation for such an extended period of time have taken a severe toll on people's wellbeing. They were denied family visits, denied mental health treatment, and even most medical treatment (other than COVID-related) was postponed. Prisoners simply sat isolated in their cells, day after day. This profound, long-term isolation has been proven over and over to cause serious mental and physical deterioration.

Prisoners were promised that if they got vaccinated, then they could resume normal activities. But this has not happened. Not because the prisoners aren't vaccinated (most are), but because there are not enough vaccinated staff to run these programs: not enough vaccinated guards to move them from place to place in the prison; not enough vaccinated medical providers to treat them; not enough vaccinated counselors, social workers, or any of the many other occupations that are used to operate a prison.

Unvaccinated guards remain a threat not only to the prisoners, but to those in the communities surrounding prisons. Many of those communities are already experiencing a surge of new COVID cases, a trend which will inevitably accelerate as the delta variant continues to spread. 

We support Governor Pritzker’s mandate that prison staff get vaccinated, as this is the best thing for prisoners, and for public health in general. We hope that other states will follow our governor’s lead.

ACLU of Illinois
Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts
Chicago Community Bond Fund
Equip for Equality
Faith Coalition for the Common Good
First Defense Legal Aid
Illinois Prison Project
Restore Justice Illinois
Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center
Trinity United Church of Christ
Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association - Chicago Area
Universalist Advocacy Network of IL
United Congregations of Metro East
Uptown People’s Law Center

  • Access to Justice
  • Chapman Spingola
  • Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym