|Photo by Tobias Rehbein|
On Wednesday, April 15, Illinois State Representative John M. Cabello (Machesney Park) released the names of formerly incarcerated people whose sentences were commuted in the past month by Governor JB Pritzker. Rep. Cabello defended publicizing the names of these individuals by stating that he is doing so “in an effort to let the public know whose sentences were commuted and advise victims and witnesses that these people are no longer in prison.”
Rep. Cabello’s actions cannot and should not be commended or seen as beneficial for anyone.
One thing must be clearly stated: the deadly novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is impacting the lives of every person on this planet. The effects of COVID-19 are unprecedented – requiring quick, responsive action to slow the loss of life and limit new transmissions. As the highest ranking official in our state, Governor JB Pritzker has mobilized his administration and made decisions to protect the lives of as many Illinoisans as possible. This includes incarcerated Illinoisans.
What Rep. Cabello did not mention were the other decisions and orders from the Pritzker administration that have benefited everyone in Illinois – including Rep. Cabello’s constituents. These steps include: orders for sheltering in place, support for first responders and front line workers, increasing access to distance health care options, building the capacity for unemployment claims, working to distribute more personal protective equipment, providing more resources for food for students and families, acquiring ventilators for people suffering from severe COVID-19 symptoms, and issuing guidance that limits discrimination in health care access and shores up the protections for our most vulnerable communities.
Rep. Cabello’s statement and action also ignore the grave fact that detention facilities across the state, and throughout the country, are ill-equipped to provide the space and infrastructure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to detained and incarcerated people, facility staff, and any other service providers, family members, or loved ones that enter these facilities. Many facilities are overcrowded and under-resourced to provide the needed health care for incarcerated individuals or to permit them to practice the social distancing that has been recommended by the CDC and WHO. In many instances, incarcerated people fall into one or more of the groups of people who are more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19 – including people living with HIV. And, due to generations of divestment and discrimination, Black and Latinx people are over-incarcerated here in Illinois and around the country. Plainly, the people most likely to be incarcerated are also the most likely to experience higher mortality rates as a result of COVID-19.
The lack of infrastructure and resources in detention facilities has the potential to cause devastating harm far beyond the walls of these spaces. The families, loved ones, and community members of the staff that enter these facilities daily will be affected. The essential workers they encounter in the community will be affected. Rep. Cabello’s own constituents will be affected. By decrying Governor Pritzker’s action, Rep. Cabello ignores the danger that every incarcerated person faces by remaining in facilities that are ill-equipped to respond to this pandemic.
Conviction and sentencing do not strip a person’s humanity. In fact, the U.S. Constitution protects incarcerated people from cruel and unusual punishment. There is nothing crueler in this moment than to turn our backs on those who have been incarcerated, nothing more unusual than to ignore their lives while we do everything in our power to save others. We did not live in a perfect society prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we cannot expect perfection and unanimous accord during this time. But what we can do in this moment is work together to protect every life that we can. We will not lose our friends, family members, neighbors, and community if we deem others unworthy of care and compassion at this moment in time – we will lose our very humanity.