Four inmates at the East Moline Correctional Center have died from COVID-19, all of them in October, according to authorities.
The fourth death, a man in his 50s, was Monday, according to Lindsey Hess, public information officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
As of Tuesday, 343 inmates and 33 staff have tested positive for coronavirus at the minimum-security prison, 100 Hillcrest Road, East Moline. Deaths are not being reported on the websites for the facility or IDOC.
Hess said no EMCC staff members had died.
There have been 29 inmate deaths from COVID-19 at Illinois prisons, according to Hess. Stateville Correctional Center, near Chicago, has had 13 inmates die; a man in his 50s was the first death on March 29. The next highest number of COVID-19 deaths has been at Robinson Correctional Center, where three of the five deaths were men in their 70s.
“East Moline Correctional Center activated its Incident Command Center and is using FEMA’s national incident command system model to set and achieve aggressive objectives to respond to COVID-19,” Hess said. "If an offender develops any symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 they are assumed to be at high risk for the disease, and pursuant to CDC and (Illinois Department of Public Health) guidelines, these individuals are isolated and tested.
“To manage outbreaks, the IDOC utilizes point prevalence testing in asymptomatic and potentially exposed offenders. Additionally, exposed asymptomatic offenders are quarantined and monitored for symptoms.”
When employees arrive at the correctional facility, Hess said, they are screened, temperatures are checked and they are given personal protective equipment. The facility has an appointed safety officer whose responsibility is to ensure proper use of PPE, deep-cleaning routines, temperature checks and screening measures.
Olegario Banuelos, 45, is an inmate who tested positive at the East Moline facility in early September. He alleged correctional officers often kept their masks down around their chins and only pulled them up when a supervisor came around. He alleged on several occasions he witnessed correctional officers exit the COVID-19 unit adjacent to his and then enter his unit without changing PPE or washing hands.
Banuelos' fiancée, Lauren Hitchcock, said Tuesday that Banuelos has recovered and is back in his own cell.
All four deaths at EMCC have been in October and were men in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
Cody Dornes, an East Moline correctional officer and president of AFSCME Local 46, said the men died at area hospitals.
“Nobody wants to see anybody die. It’s really unfortunate this is happening,” Dornes said. "We’ve been taking better precautions at the facility. With the country reopening, these things are inevitable, not only in prisons, but in any communal-living environment. The majority of the prison is an open dormitory-style of living. There is only one housing unit that is a typical prison setup with two-man cells with doors that lock.
“That’s why our facility has been hit as hard as it has been is because of the open environment.”
Hess said IDOC had taken measures to protect the health and safety of staff and inmates. Visitation at all correctional facilities was suspended March 14, and on March 20, the facilities were placed on administrative quarantine with restricted movement. Prisons with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are placed on medical quarantine.
PPE is provided to all staff, and KN95 masks are distributed weekly to all men and women in custody. Additionally, Hess said IDOC is working with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office and the Prisoner Review Board to review inmates who are eligible for early release.
“Hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap and cleaning supplies are being made available to all staff and incarcerated individuals,” Hess said. "We are closely monitoring our supply levels at each facility and are in close communication with our vendors to maintain adequate inventory. All staff are screened and temperature checked upon arrival to their correctional facility. All correctional facilities and transport vehicles are being routinely cleaned and disinfected.
“We are communicating regularly with staff and people in custody to ensure they feel safe,” Hess said.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group in Illinois, alleged staff could be the only way the virus was brought into prisons since outside visits were stopped in March.
“It’s deeply concerning that the protocols are not strict enough or the enforcement of the protocols aren’t strict enough to protect people in prisons from the behavior of people that can come and go from the prisons right now,” she said.
Vollen-Katz alleges the main issue is compliance of staff wearing their masks when supervisors are not present.
“When the leadership isn’t in the prison with eyes on staff, they stop wearing their masks or wear them blow their chin,” she said. "And (it) makes the people in prisons incredibly anxious because they understand these are people that come and go.
“The people in prison are powerless to enforce this kind of practice among guards.”
Vollen-Katz said her organization continued to get calls, letters and emails from current inmates and family members about the state’s prison system. She said the John Howard Association planned to release comments from inmates that were collected during its COVID-19 survey earlier this year.