By Jessica Pupovac . . . After serving 10 years in prison for criminal sexual assault, Marcus Barnes was counting down the days until his release date on Dec. 17, 2018.
He was planning on spending the holidays with his family and reconnecting with his daughter, who had recently graduated from high school and had started communicating with him again.
“With me being absent, she was a little resentful in the beginning, which I understand,” he said. “I worked really hard to really let her know that I love her.”
But when his release date finally arrived, he was told that the Chicago apartment he was planning on moving to was too close to a home day care facility. It would be a violation of housing restrictions imposed on him as a person on the sex offender registry, and, therefore, he would remain in prison.
“I kinda braced because my body just couldn’t move for a second,” said Barnes.
Barnes’ family scrambled to find alternatives. They say they found 11 different housing options for him, only to have each of them rejected by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). And so, 16 months after his original release date, he was still at Graham Correctional Center when a guard there tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was a little terrified,” said Barnes. “I was trying to act like it was OK, but I was a little nervous.”
Barnes was one of an estimated 1,200 people who are kept behind bars in Illinois every year even though they’ve completed their sentences. It’s a problem under normal circumstances, but with COVID-19 spreading in prisons across the country and the state, it’s taken on new urgency. . . .
“Many of these people have safe and welcoming housing to go to outside of IDOC,” said Adele Nicholas, a civil rights attorney who has filed multiple cases against the state over this issue. “But the Illinois laws are so restrictive and impose so many hurdles to getting housing approved that IDOC won’t let these people go home even though they’re done with their sentences and are entitled to be released.”
Now, a coalition of 50 local and national criminal justice reform organizations, led by the Chicago 400 Alliance, is calling on Gov. JB Pritzker to ease conviction-based housing restrictions for the duration of the pandemic. The move would allow people who have completed their sentences to finally leave prison.
“We’ve been working on this issue for years,” said alliance coordinator Laurie Jo Reynolds, “but now it’s a matter of life and death.” . . .
Meanwhile, inside Illinois prisons, as of [the first week of July], at least 13 inmates had died after testing positive for COVID-19 according to IDOC. An additional 197 staff members and 324 inmates had tested positive . . .
Laurie Jo Reynolds is a member of NARSOL affiliate organization Illinois Voices.