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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

COVID Precautions Impose Hardship On Pekin Prison Inmates

prison cell
Creative Commons
The coronavirus is deepening the isolation many inmates feel because of their incarceration.

There have been multiple lockdowns in a Pekin federal prison to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the facility, with many inmates losing contact with families during the times they are confined to their cells.

And the family of one inmate said the impact on the family and the inmate is high.

Tyler Kuhnke is a few years into a 17-year sentence for providing drugs that resulted in an overdose death. His sister-in-law, Destinee Kuhnke, said she is concerned for his mental health. 

“It’s bad. I mean when he calls us after lockdown he’s like, ‘We’re finally out of lockdown,’” said Kuhnke. “You go in there, you go crazy... he’s like, ‘I’m freaking out about the kids.’” 

Tyler Kuhnke’s two children, a 5-year old and 7-year old, ask for their dad and ask if he’s OK, said Destinee Kuhnke. She said they act out and want to be able to at least talk to him. Destinee said Tyler worries about his asthmatic children, who are at high-risk to contract COVID-19.

Destinee Kuhnke said their family is in pain when they cannot reach out on birthdays.

“Jeez, these people are all hurting, they’re all going insane. The 15-year old brother, 7-year old and the mom... Mom barely sleeps at night, she’s up all night because she hasn’t heard from him,” said Kuhnke. 

Tyler's brother was just in tears all day on Tyler’s birthday, said Destinee Kuhnke.

She said some inmates in state prison can have free phone and video calls because there is no visitation. She said federal authorities do not allow that.

“The last time they were in lockdown… it was a month and a half he wasn’t able to call. It isn’t because of behavior or anything because the whole prison is locked down. In my opinion, it’s screwed up because the staff are clearly the ones bringing it in,” said Destinee Kuhnke.

She said she understands that federal prison officials are trying to contain spread of the virus. Recently, the Pekin facility recently had an outbreak of 74 cases among inmates. But she said she feels the way Pekin prison is handling it is too much for inmates to manage. 

According to a 2020 Legal Aid Society study, almost 1.6 million people are currently being housed across the United States in state and federal prisons. In another 2020 study, researcher Rebekah Sager found that in the U.S., 10 times more people with mental health disorders are in jail or prison than in mental health facilities. 

Some psychiatric experts said that means more than over 300,000 inmates are not receiving the care they need.

“You go crazy sitting in your cell. They’re getting bagged lunches delivered to their cells. At least in state prison, if there was a security-risk lockdown you could have your tablet,” said Destinee Kuhnke. “Why won't they get them those? At least during this type of stuff, they could contact their families. It’s already bad that he has gone away.” 

Pekin FCI has 961 inmates and Pekin-Camp F has 171. Destinee and Tyler Kuhnke and family are from Appleton, Wis.

A call and an email the Pekin prison went unreturned.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.