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Illinois Prison Watchdog Organization Leader Glad About Restart Of In-Person Visits

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Michael Coghlan
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John Howard Association Executive Director Jennifer Vollen-Katz said the Department of Corrections should have been much quicker in making plans to restart prison visits in person.

The leader of the independent oversight organization for Illinois prisons says the state is in "uncharted territory" as the Department of Corrections works on starting in-person visits again.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director for the John Howard Association, said it's good there are plans in place for in-person visitation. But she said the Department of Corrections should have restarted visits much sooner.

"We know how deeply, deeply difficult this has been for both the men and women who are inside Illinois prisons, as well as their loved ones and family members," said Vollen-Katz. "Other forms of communication just really have not been enough."

Vollen-Katz said she hopes for transparency from the state, and that new safety procedures will keep people safe.

"We're sort of holding our breath and crossing our fingers that this is successful, and that it will ramp up rather than wind down based on contagion and disease inside the facilities as we see the visits start to happen," said Vollen-Katz.

Since early last year, the state's prisons have shifted to video and phone visitation as a precaution against COVID-19.

Vollen-Katz said while safety needed to be a priority, the department could have handled the systems in place better.

"I think what's really unfortunate is that the department wasn't able to find ways to improve infrastructure quickly, that the tech, the state of technology inside the facilities is so poor that video visits didn't become a more viable way of people connecting with families and loved ones," said Vollen-Katz. "We heard a lot of stories about the frustration people experienced."

Prison staff vaccination rates are also low. Vollen-Katz said the current rate was somewhere around 35%, though she noted that does not reflect people who've gone outside the Department of Corrections to get vaccinated.

"Our hope is that people who work inside the prisons will come to understand the benefits for themselves, for their families, for their communities, for the community they work in," said Vollen-Katz. 

She said she's heartened that incarcerated people were prioritized for the vaccine. The current vaccination rate for prisoners in the state is around 69%.

"The thinking behind it was sound, which was how do we protect the most number of people, how do we enhance the greater good," said Vollen-Katz. "The reality is, prisons are part of communities. They are not, you know, just cities unto themselves."

The restart dates for visitation are based on when each prison receives second doses of the COVID vaccine. The next wave of start dates for visitation is set for Monday. That'll include correctional centers in Taylorville, Dixon, and Stateville.

Vollen-Katz said as the state begins to move past COVID-19, merely returning to pre-COVID standards is not enough.

"Our system is much smaller than it then it's been in over 30 years," said Vollen-Katz. "We should be able to figure out how to keep people out of prisons, we should find ways to further reduce the population that's already in there, we've got to find ways to take better care of the people who are in prison."

According to Department of Corrections data, around 27,500 people were incarcerated in state correctional centers as of the end of March.

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