‘I’ll be the first to die’ | Feature | Chicago Reader

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‘I’ll be the first to die’

As Illinois prisons accelerated releases during the pandemic, many were forced into crowded, unmonitored residential reentry centers across Cook County.

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Willie Jones outside the Elite Houses of Sober Living's facility in Chicago Heights - MICHAEL MURNEY
  • Michael Murney
  • Willie Jones outside the Elite Houses of Sober Living's facility in Chicago Heights

Willie Jones clutched his chest and gasped for air. Alone in his bed in one of Elite Houses of Sober Living's facilities just south of Chicago, Jones, 56, dragged himself into the house's common area. There he collapsed to the floor, clinging to consciousness.

Days before in early February 2021, a fellow resident—whom the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) had referred to Elite following his release from prison earlier that week—began to cough incessantly. Jones urged him to tell staff and alert the on-call medical team.

After nearly 30 years struggling with heroin addiction, Jones grapples daily with congestive heart failure, hepatitis C, and chronic pneumonia from weakened lungs. He knew these conditions put him at greater risk of serious illness or death if he contracted the virus, which he had tried to explain to all Elite newcomers since the pandemic started. "I always tell all the guys, every time they get here, 'I'm sick, I got a bad heart, I got diabetes, so if you got the virus, you gotta do something, you gotta talk.' Because I'll be the first one to die up in here," said Jones.

His housemate refused to tell staff or self-quarantine, despite Jones's appeals. Hoping to avoid a conflict, Jones stayed quiet and remained at Elite, not wanting to risk his hard-won sobriety—and unsure of where else he would go. Meanwhile, his housemate was allowed to move throughout the facility unquarantined and untested for several days.

When the virus spread from his housemate to Jones earlier this year, its course was swift. He began to cough in the afternoon, and by that night, he said, each breath was a battle.

Jones and almost all residents of Elite's six facilities in the Chicagoland area were previously incarcerated in an Illinois state prison before arriving at Elite.

A Reader analysis of documents obtained through public records requests found that Elite Houses of Sober Living is one of 23 companies contracted by the IDOC to operate at least 96 residential reentry centers across Illinois. Unlike Illinois's four adult transitional centers, reentry centers are not subject to oversight by any federal, state, or local authority.

Like Jones's housemate, many reentry center residents arrive at their assigned facilities directly from prison, on referral from the IDOC. Others, like Jones, reside there voluntarily.

Those referred to reentry centers by the IDOC are forced to live there as a condition of their parole. Though nearly all Illinois reentry vendors operate under tax-exempt nonprofit status as inpatient sober living facilities, many of their formerly incarcerated residents have no documented history of substance abuse.

"Legally, you just have to have some address where IDOC can verify and find you, in order to make it out the door," said Phillip Whittington, corrections policy analyst at the John Howard Association, an Illinois prison watchdog group. "The vast majority of people being released, quite frankly, just have nowhere else to go," he said.

The Reader's investigation found that the IDOC's accelerated parole releases during the pandemic are straining reentry centers' virus prevention and screening resources, and in some cases replicating the crowded conditions most conducive to viral transmission. Meanwhile, since the pandemic began, the IDOC has funneled more than $18 million in taxpayer dollars to reentry contractors. Neither the IDOC nor the Illinois Department of Human Services has installed any mechanisms for monitoring conditions in the facilities they operate, nor for documenting COVID-19 cases among their residents.

"The IDOC doesn't consider these folks their responsibility after they leave prison," said Whittington. "Reentry vendors are doing a job no one wants to do, and doing it relatively cheaply. So everyone's happy to let them go unmonitored."

When two of his housemates found him gasping for air on the floor of Elite's common area, Willie Jones was close to death. With the last of his remaining strength, he wheezed, "You, carry me out the door. You, call the ambulance. I'm about to die up in here."

When his younger sister became pregnant in 1982, Jones, then 18, started searching for a way to pay for the new expenses a baby was sure to bring. "I couldn't find a job, so I started selling drugs," he said. Jones recounts his past in rapid, dispassionate sentences.

He began selling marijuana and cocaine in and around the Robert Taylor Homes, one of Chicago's since-demolished public housing projects on the south side, where he lived with his grandmother and two younger sisters.

That same year, President Ronald Reagan declared a renewed "War on Drugs," launching a suite of federal programs designed to enhance policing and levy harsh penalties on drug users and dealers.

The Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group—America's two largest private prison and reentry services companies to date—were both founded in the two years that followed Reagan's declaration, initiating the rise of privatized penal institutions as a core component of U.S. carceral governance. Both companies now make around $2 billion in revenue annually.

By the time his niece was born in 1983, Jones had graduated to selling heroin. He also began using it to cope with the repeated traumas endemic to selling drugs to survive. "We brutalized our bodies out there," he said. "Then heroin took all that pain away."

He continued to sell and use heroin for the next three years, until he was arrested and charged with felony drug possession in 1985. Jones spent most of the next eight years in state prisons, where heroin was still easy to find, he said.

Meanwhile, private capital's infiltration of the penal system progressed, and Congress passed a series of draconian sentencing laws, lengthening mandatory minimums and establishing mandatory life sentences without parole for third-time felony offenders.

The prison population exploded as a result, rising from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 by 1997. Black and Latinx men were incarcerated at rates several times higher than their white counterparts. Private prisons and reentry services, meanwhile, ballooned in tandem.

When Jones was released in 1993, he was determined to get sober. He found a job at a Harold's Chicken Shack on the south side. He found an apartment he could afford nearby, then fell in love, and soon moved into a new apartment in Englewood with his first girlfriend.

Jones's girlfriend was also in recovery from heroin addiction. For nearly two years, they worked together to keep each other sober. But when she relapsed in 1995, Jones soon found himself using alongside her.

"Someone can have years of sobriety, then see a cue and just instantly start again," said Dr. Daniel Fridberg, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. "We know that objects like drug paraphernalia are powerful cues."

For Jones, his exposure to his girlfriend's use sparked a slide back into addiction. For the next two decades, his life, he said, revolved around heroin. "I was staying in the streets, running around, hurting myself over and over. Then using took that pain away," said Jones.

The prospect of another stint in prison motivated Jones's recommitment to sobriety in 2013. After narrowly avoiding another arrest for heroin possession, "I just told myself, 'No more, I gotta do this,'" he said. Jones checked himself into Elite Houses of Sober Living's Chicago Heights facility a few months later.

After residing there and maintaining his sobriety for three years, Jones became the facility's "house manager," receiving room and board in exchange for onboarding new arrivals and keeping Elite's owner apprised of any problems between residents. By the time the pandemic began in March 2020, Jones had lived and worked at Elite for nearly eight years. As Jones battled addiction and homelessness during the mid- to late 2000s, political tides were shifting away from tough-on-crime policies.

"In the last 20 years there's been a bunch of political appetite for reducing our rates of incarceration . . . and politicians on the left and the right are picking up on that," said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Nonetheless, Bertram explained, neither progressives nor conservatives demonstrated concurrent appetites for risking elections on bold criminal justice reforms. "What we've been seeing as a result is a lot of moving money and people around to different kinds of carceral facilities, like reentry centers," said Bertram.

Private prison companies and nonprofits pitched residential reentry centers as a cheaper alternative to mass incarceration, amassing bipartisan support from fiscal conservatives and criminal justice reform advocates alike, Bertram said.

President Barack Obama announced in 2009 that enhancing reentry services would be "a central part of the Obama Administration's strategy to reform the criminal justice system," and created a federal grant program to pump tax dollars into local reentry programming.

Enthusiasm for reentry services enhancements continued under President Trump: Republican lawmakers introduced legislation aimed at reducing sentencing lengths and expanding federal reentry services in May 2018, which passed through both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law in December 2018.

The legislative and financial efforts aimed at expanding reentry programming under two successive administrations, however, were never paired with any form of oversight for state and local reentry vendors. As a result, "we lack some of the most basic data about reentry facilities," said Bertram. "You would think that somewhere there would be a list of all the reentry facilities in a certain state or list of all the reentry facilities in the country, but there isn't. We don't even have a good number on how many people are in those facilities."

Today, Bertram explained, as a result of ongoing expansion of reentry programming as an alternative to mass incarceration, "the cost of incarceration is being shouldered by incarcerated people or families, and the private companies are accruing the profits."

Reentry service providers were among the many companies who won lucrative city contracts by pitching city officials during the early days of the pandemic.

Three days before Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a mandatory stay-at-home order for the city of Chicago, Candace Moore, the mayor's chief equity officer, e-mailed then-Deputy Mayor Susan Lee.

"I just got a call from Victor at Safer," she wrote, "they are working with the State on the release of individuals from state facilities. They are running into the problem of folks being eligible for release but don't have a residence that they can go to."

Moore was referring to Victor Dickson, the president and CEO of the Safer Foundation, which received about $13 million from the IDOC to manage reentry programming in several facilities across the state in 2019. The very next day, Dickson e-mailed Lee with a list of suggestions for managing reentry during the pandemic.

"Very helpful," Lee wrote in response. "Will keep working on it."

When Lightfoot issued the stay-at-home order on March 20, 2020, Jones said he already felt unprotected at Elite. Elite's residents were still permitted to leave the facility to work; his housemates—nearly all formerly incarcerated, working "essential" jobs—continued to work during the day, then return to the facility at night as the pandemic raged.

Dickson e-mailed a group of Safer Foundation employees on March 26, stating that the IDOC and governor's office had tasked Safer with "providing a central point of contact and coordination" for reentry services in Cook County during the pandemic. He noted that "we could certainly use financial support to pay for this new function we will provide."

Copied on the e-mail was William Filan, a lobbyist for the Safer Foundation. These e-mails—which the Reader found among the thousands of e-mails and documents released by DDoSecrets, a nonprofit whistleblower, earlier this year—show that Filan forwarded the e-mail to another city employee 20 minutes later, requesting contact with the city's "criminal justice reform person in the governor's office." The city employee directed Filan to Deputy Mayor Susan Lee.

In the ensuing eight months, The Safer Foundation received about $16.7 million in public funds through IDOC contracts—nearly $3 million more than it received during the entire preceding year. The Safer Foundation has not responded to requests for comment on the exact role it plays in coordinating reentry between the IDOC and individual reentry facilities.

As state and local officials passed reentry management off to the Safer Foundation, the IDOC was ramping up parole releases. According to the University of California Los Angeles's COVID-19 Behind Bars Project, IDOC released around 4,000 people on parole in March and April 2020 alone. The Reader's analysis of IDOC parole data shows that parole release rates during March and April 2020 were more than 50 percent higher than over the same period in 2019.

Invoices submitted by Elite to the IDOC show that Elite's population of parole referrals more than doubled from March to April of last year. Albert Ellis, Elite's owner, said he never received any specific instructions on establishing virus prevention protocols from the IDOC.

Like all 23 reentry vendors in Illinois, Elite also receives public funding through contracts with the Illinois Department of Human Services. But the IDHS never established protocols for its reentry contractors, nor provided personal protective equipment to their contracted facilities.

"We've been taking all the precautions, testing constantly, taking temperatures to enter the house, social distancing," Ellis said. "But we had to figure it out ourselves."

"The pandemic blindsided us, because we didn't have any protocol," said Theron Scissom, owner and operator of It's About Change Sober Living in Elgin, 35 miles northwest of Chicago. "[IDOC] pretty much sent us the people, and any protocol was kind of up to us."

Scissom said that his facilities were being "bombarded" with IDOC referrals, particularly during March and April. All four It's About Change facilities operated at or near capacity from at least March through September of last year, he said, "which made protocols even more difficult."

More than 14,000 people were released on parole by the end of 2020, a rate 10 percent higher than over the same nine-month period in 2019. This year, the Reader's investigation found that elevated parole release rates have persisted.

Jones's last memory from that early February night is of two EMTs rushing him into the back of an ambulance on a stretcher. Before losing consciousness, he rasped, "I need you to let them know at the hospital that I'll be the first one to die up in there."

At the Advocate Trinity emergency room in South Chicago, Jones was intubated and placed on life support, and put in a medically induced coma for nine days as his body battled the virus. Three weeks after doctors roused him to consciousness, Jones was removed from life support and released.

With nowhere else to go and no family to call, Jones was discharged into the care of Elite staff, and returned to his bed to convalesce. "I've almost died three or four times and now with the virus, what it did to my heart, this is too good to be true already, because I'm still living," said Jones.

Nearly three months later, Jones is making plans for a life beyond Elite. "I'm gonna get my own apartment," he said, "take care of my diabetes and such on my own."

In the meantime, though, he is busier than ever, onboarding a new influx of residents from prisons across Illinois. Jones is scrambling to keep up, and sounded harried on the phone. A cacophony of voices in the background made him hard to hear. He apologized, saying he can't talk right now. "It's not a good time," he said. "I'm just too busy, with all these new guys coming in."  v

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