Champaign coalition calls for release of inmates during pandemic

By Aliza Majid, Staff Writer

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the nation, people are concerned about how the incarcerated population is being taken care of during this pandemic. 

An open letter created by the Champaign County Bailout Coalition addressed to Champaign County officials advocates for better healthcare for prisoners in the county’s jail and the release of inmates who cannot pay for their cash bail.

Elizabeth Simpson, chapter leader for activist group Champaign-Urbana Showing Up For Racial Justice, is one of over 400 individuals who have signed the open letter.

“We are in the middle of a once in a century pandemic,” Simpson said. “People who are incarcerated cannot social distance structurally, and they are also not being provided with the appropriate materials and supplies to do sanitation, hygiene and non-contamination practices.”

The petition prioritizes the release of those who are over the age of 50 or have a compromised immune system because they are at high risk for the coronavirus. 

In the past few days, coronavirus totals have skyrocketed in Chicago’s prison systems. As the number of cases increase in these prisons, people have started to question how other jails are combating this health crisis in their own counties.

“(Another thing) we’ve started doing is that we screen everybody who comes into the jail, including inmates and employees,” said Dustin Heuerman, Champaign County sheriff. “We have medical staff at the jail, so they help with that, and then the new intakes are also required to be quarantined for 14 days before entering the general population.”

The open letter requests proper healthcare for the incarcerated population in the Champaign County Jail, as well as free hygiene supplies to help fight off infections.

“Inmates have access to soap and water 24/7 in their cells, and we just recently issued masks to inmates to wear when they’re leaving their cells,” Heuerman said. “We’ve reduced the movement, but if they are moving at all, they need to have a mask on. And so, that’s been going over pretty well so far, but it’s only been (in) progress for a day or two.”

To reduce the current incarcerated population, the open letter requests that the Champaign County Jail release those individuals who are unable to pay their bonds and are in jail awaiting their trial.

“In the current moment, the call is to release all people who are awaiting cash bail, and then also to additionally release people who are close to the end of their sentences, people who have not been convicted of nonviolent crimes since they’re not a threat to the community, (and) people who have been convicted on charges that are now no longer illegal (like) cannabis use,” said Simpson.

Sheriff Heuerman has not seen the open letter yet, but he has been contacted by the public through his secretary who receives calls regarding the push to release inmates from jail. 

“We’re also working with the state’s attorney’s office, and a lot of people don’t realize that I myself can’t just open the doors and decide who’s going to leave the jail,” Heuerman said. “It takes the state’s attorney’s office to really say we’re gonna let them out. We’ve been working really closely with her office to identify any inmates who might be, number one, more susceptible to the virus and also to identify inmates who maybe are accused of nonviolent crimes that might be able to be released.”

Thirty-three organizations and 469 individuals have endorsed the petition in hopes for a change in the public health situation in jails. 

“This is a social media campaign,” said Tyeese Braslavsky, leader for the Criminal Justice Committee at Illini Hillel. “We have information sheets and flyers, and we’re trying to spread the word about it and educate people as much as possible. I’m personally reaching out to my friends and asking them to sign this. We also have a whole script that we’re provided from the bailout coalition to contact the public officials.”

The Champaign Bailout Coalition did not respond for comment by the publication date.

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this article contained a wrongly recorded quote by Sheriff Dustin Heuerman. The sheriff cannot decide who leaves the Champaign County Jail. The Daily Illini regrets this error.