Commentary: Denying access to parole in Illinois hurts the health of communities in and outside prison

Tribune Content Agency

The Illinois House Judiciary Criminal Committee took a critical step toward achieving long overdue state prison reform this month by voting in favor of the Earned Reentry bill. Illinois is one of 16 states to have abolished or severely restricted discretionary parole. Illinois’ lack of parole is not only inhumane, but it also perpetuates existing health inequities in the United States.

Of the 1.4 million people currently held in United States prisons, 1 in 7 are serving life sentences. In states with parole, judges sentence people to a range of years, and people have an opportunity to earn their release by presenting their case to a parole board after completing a minimum sentence. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Illinois, which abolished parole in 1978. In fact, many people have only one opportunity to be freed before serving their maximum sentence: The governor of Illinois may grant them executive clemency. However, this is a rare occurrence.

The negative health impacts of mass incarceration are widespread and well documented. People in prisons and jails suffer from higher rates of infectious disease, chronic conditions and mental health problems, which these facilities are often ill-equipped to address. Suicide was the leading cause of death in correctional facilities from 2000 to 2014. The harms of incarceration also extend beyond prison walls. Communities and families fractured by high incarceration rates often face higher rates of poverty and mental health conditions.

The spread of COVID-19 is a prime example of the consequences of incarceration on population health. Numerous large outbreaks of COVID-19 in the U.S. happened in prisons and jails. As a result, people experiencing incarceration in 2020 were five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population.

From a public health perspective, prisons and jails also contributed to higher levels of community spread due to the large volumes of people cycling in and out of carceral facilities, including staff members who inadvertently brought COVID-19 home to their families and neighborhoods.

Illinois’ lack of parole coupled with the state’s extreme sentencing laws made this situation even worse. Over the last four decades, the number of people in prison in Illinois increased by over 500% to around 40,000.

These policies have created an aging prison population. Nearly one-quarter of people currently in prison in Illinois are older than 50, compared with only 4% in 1988. The combination of an older incarcerated population, overcrowding and poor access to medical care in correctional facilities contributed to a COVID-19 death rate that was four times higher among people in prison than Illinois’ general population from January 2020 to February 2021.

Not only are these policies costing lives, but they also come with a high price tag. Studies estimate that states pay around $60,000 to $70,000 per year to keep each person older than 50 in prison, which is double the cost for younger people who are incarcerated.

The absence of parole further exacerbates racial health inequities. In Illinois, Black people make up 15% of the population, yet account for 66% of people serving life sentences. The negative health impacts of incarceration and Illinois’ lack of parole have clearly fallen disproportionately on Black residents. Reintroducing parole is one mechanism to begin to address the racial disparities of incarceration.

The lack of parole or alternative to parole is causing thousands of people to languish in prison, and it threatens the health not only of these individuals but also of entire communities within and beyond prison walls. Now is the time to push for change.

One way that Illinois legislators are considering the issue of extreme sentencing laws is through the Earned Reentry bill, which would make any person who has served at least 20 consecutive years in prison eligible to be considered for release by the Prisoner Review Board. To address this issue in the short term, Gov. J.B. Pritzker must grant a larger volume of clemency petitions.

Finally, I would like to raise awareness about a new compassionate release bill, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2022. This law creates a process by which individuals experiencing incarceration can be released if a health care provider determines that they have a terminal illness or are medically incapacitated.

Long prison sentences have damaging effects on health and health equity. Change will come when the wider community becomes more invested in learning, caring and advocating alongside those who are incarcerated.