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Illinois Failing to Grant Dying Prisoners Medical Releases

of dying and medically enfeebled state prisoners were expected to be released when Illinois lawmakers passed the Joe Coleman Medical Release (JCMR) Act. But an investigative report released on August 30, 2023, found that two-thirds of prisoner requests had been denied in the first 18 months after the law was passed.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the law in August 2021 to get critically and terminally ill prisoners out of state lockups, where bungled healthcare has cost some hefty legal payouts; that same month, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) shelled out $450,000 to a prisoner whose untreated boil eventually led to amputation of both legs, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Jan. 2023, p.46.]

A year later, in August 2022, the federal court for the Northern District of Illinois held DOC in contempt for failing to draft a remediation plan for its healthcare system, which the monitor in a long-running class-action called “systemically broken.” See: Lippert v. Ghosh, USDC (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:10-cv-04603.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union testified at an August 2023 public hearing to the woeful performance of DOC’s private healthcare contractor, Wexford Health Sources: “Prescriptions go unrenewed, cancers go undiagnosed. In the worst cases … people die painful deaths because of the lack of care.”

The report released that same month by Injustice Watch and WBEZ in Chicago found just a few dozen terminally ill state prisoners were released in the first year and a half after the JCMR Act was signed. DOC’s Prisoner Review Board (PRB), which has final say on requests, seemed split along ideological lines, with Republicans on the board more likely to deny medical release requests than their Democratic counterparts. The three board members with the highest denial rates, all Republicans, each voted against release in more than 70% of the cases they heard.

To encourage PRB to grant more releases, criminal justice reform advocates urge state lawmakers to amend the JCMR Act to require board members to visit prison infirmaries and give reasons for their denial votes. They also want to provide prisoners with attorneys to argue their cases and allow them to reapply for medical release sooner than PRB currently permits.

Michael Merritt’s brother Phillip, who is terminally ill and has dementia, is one of those prisoners denied medical release. He was convicted of attempted murder, but another prisoner convicted of murder was granted release because his panel had more Democrats sitting the day of his hearing. Michael Merritt is refiling a medical release request, but he is not optimistic, even though he believes that his sibling would be better off dying at home than in prison.

Meanwhile, DOC renewed its contract with Wexford in December 2023, at an estimated cost of $4 billion over the next decade.   


Additional sources: WBEZ

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Related legal case

Lippert v. Ghosh