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Three Deaths in Three Days at Illinois Prison Spur Calls for Greater Transparency

by Chad Marks

In September 2018, three prisoners died on three consecutive days at the Menard Correctional Center in Illinois. Kevin Curtis, 31, who was on suicide watch, died on September 5. The next day, Edwin Freeman, 45, also on suicide watch, was found unresponsive in his cell and taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. And on September 7, prisoner Timothy Murray, 32, died due to “probable intoxication with an unknown substance,” according to the coroner.

An internal investigation by the Department of Corrections (DOC) said its employees had committed no wrongdoing in connection with the deaths, despite the fact that one guard, Nickolas Mitchell, admitted he falsified cell checks during the time that Curtis died. One staff member was temporarily suspended by the DOC in connection with the deaths, according to a spokesperson.

WBEZ obtained records that indicated at least 166 prisoners had died in DOC facilities from January 2017 to September 2018. In about 80 of those deaths, the prison system’s research department listed no reason for the cause of death. When requests were made regarding specific deaths, the DOC said in some cases it had no death certificates or reports.

This lack of transparency makes it easy for prison officials to conceal any misconduct or negligence. Family members of the three prisoners who died in September 2018 said they received few details about the deaths of their loved ones.

The “Department of Corrections acts in private, behind locked doors – that’s the whole point of the Department of Corrections,” said Alan Mills, an attorney with the Uptown People’s Law Center.

Illinois lawmakers failed to pass a bill (HB3090) that would have required state prisons and local jails to provide family members and the Attorney General with details about prisoner deaths, and to conduct investigations and issue annual reports. The DOC, in conjunction with the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, had opposed the legislation.

Lawmakers and advocates say they have plans to reintroduce a similar bill. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker initially refused to say whether he would support legislation requiring greater transparency with respect to prisoner deaths. But according to a September 23, 2019 news report, Pritzker expressed his support for such a bill, citing “logistical concerns” as the DOC’s reason for opposing the prior legislation. He said his administration is “working with the sponsors in the next session to adopt legislation that will promote transparency.”

“We absolutely need better reporting standards for our deaths in custody,” stated Rep. Anne Stava-Murray. “Given the limitations of current data, including missing critical information, it’s clear more transparency is needed to identify stronger prevention policies.”

With 166 prisoners dead in less than two years, there is an obvious need for increased transparency and accountability when it comes to deaths in custody, particularly for family members of the deceased.

“We should be concerned that we don’t know very much about how people in custody, people who are removed from their families and their communities and the public eye, are dying,” observed Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group. “Knowing about injuries and deaths that occur inside our prisons is critical to understanding and monitoring the administration of medical care, institutional safety, and abuse and neglect of injured and sick prisoners,” she added. “This information provides a critical window into how prisoners are treated and must be made publicly available so that the public can hold the department accountable for the safety and well-being, physically and emotionally, of the people in its custody.” 



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