Dying, disabled prisoners stay behind bars, despite Illinois law calling for medical release


Phillip Merritt’s dementia is so advanced he’s lost the ability to speak. But with the help of his cellmates at Western Illinois Correctional Center, Merritt, 71, still manages to get on the phone with his brother every few weeks.

“He has to have someone call me, and then I don’t know what to say to him because he can’t understand anything, so I’ll just talk,” Michael Merritt said. “All he can say are two words. … I mean, he’s just gone.”

Phillip Merritt’s deteriorating condition makes him a prime candidate to get out of prison under the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act, an Illinois law touted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other Democrats as a way to reduce the “staggering” costs of caring for ailing people in prison and reunite families with frail loved ones.

Under the law — named for Joe Coleman, a decorated Army veteran who died of prostate cancer while incarcerated — Illinois prisoners can request early release if they’re terminally ill and expected to die within 18 months, or if they’re medically incapacitated and need help with more than one activity of daily living, such as eating or using the bathroom.

But a year and a half since the law took effect, far fewer prisoners have been released than expected as the medical release process has become mired in the politics of criminal justice reform in the post-George Floyd era, an investigation by Injustice Watch and WBEZ has found.

Behind the lower-than-expected numbers is the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, a state agency whose members are appointed by Pritzker that has the final say on medical release requests. As of mid-August, the board has denied nearly two-thirds of medical release requests from dying and disabled prisoners who met the medical criteria to get out of prison — including Phillip Merritt.

“I couldn’t believe it,” his brother said. “How could they deny him? He can’t even talk.”

More than half of the 89 denied applicants were older than 60. Most had spent at least 15 years behind bars.

At least two died in prison, including an 81-year-old who’d been incarcerated for more than three decades and was scheduled to be released in 2025.

Another man died five days before the board denied his request.

The Prisoner Review Board has granted 52 medical releases — a rate of less than three releases per month since it began voting on those requests, records show.

Advocates say the board is undermining the Coleman Act and forcing ill-equipped prison staffs to care for dying and disabled prisoners, even those with families practically begging to take them off their hands.

Jennifer Soble, founder and executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, at her downtown office.

Jennifer Soble, founder and executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, at her downtown office. “Our prison system is now completely overburdened by people who pose absolutely no risk to public safety but are tremendously expensive to care for,” says Soble, who was the lead author of the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act.

“Our prison system is now completely overburdened by people who pose absolutely no risk to public safety but are tremendously expensive to care for,” said Jennifer Soble, lead author of the Coleman Act and executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit legal group that represents dozens of medical release applicants. “From a cost-saving perspective, from a government-efficiency perspective and truly from a moral perspective, we need to be doing something differently here.”

Donald Shelton, chair of the Prisoner Review Board, declined an interview request. In a written statement, he said: “Each case that comes before the board comes with its own set of circumstances to be studied and evaluated by members. Due diligence is given by the board to every person who sets a petition before them.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s March 13 announcement of state board appointments including that of Donald Shelton to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s March 13 announcement of state board appointments including that of Donald Shelton to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Medical releases could save millions

It’s unclear exactly how many of Illinois’ nearly 30,000 prisoners could qualify for medical release. Under the Coleman Act, the Illinois Department of Corrections is required to keep track of that number, but department officials said they don’t have it yet. A spokesperson said the data would be published by year’s end.

What is clear, from years of scathing reports from an independent monitor appointed by a federal judge, is that Illinois prisons are unfit to provide health care for the thousands of aging, disabled and incapacitated prisoners.

Half of the state’s prison medical staff jobs are currently vacant, including 80% of physician positions. Prisoners with mobility issues suffer bedsores and frequent falls because no one is around to care for them. Some are left sitting in their own waste, according to the monitor’s reports.

“Prescriptions go unrenewed, cancers go undiagnosed. In the worst cases, as everyone here knows, people die painful deaths because of the lack of care,” attorney Camille Bennett with the ACLU of Illinois said at a recent hearing on health care in state prisons.

Even this substandard care is expensive. Illinois paid $250 million in its latest budget year to Wexford Health Sources, the for-profit company contracted to provide health care to state prisoners, according to state records.

Wexford’s 10-year contract expired in 2021, but the company continues providing care as Illinois seeks new bidders.

Experts said releasing more people under the Coleman Act could bring down the cost of prison health care.

“The more prisoners there are who are medically needy, the higher the cost of caring for them, and the higher the bids will be,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.

Brian Rich / Sun-Times file

If the Prisoner Review Board approved more medical releases, the cost savings for taxpayers in the long term could be in the millions, Mills said.

Daniel Conn, chief executive of Wexford Health Sources, did not respond to an interview request. Questions sent to a Wexford spokesperson went unanswered.

LaToya Hughes, acting director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, declined to comment.

There are other, more immediate savings for Illinois taxpayers if more ailing prisoners were released, Mills said. A recent government report showed Illinois spends more than $76,000, on average, to incarcerate a single person for a year. Experts say terminally ill and incapacitated prisoners are much more expensive to care for. Prisoners whose medical needs can’t be met in prison infirmaries are escorted to and from hospitals by guards. With prisons short-staffed, officers already routinely require overtime pay. 

By not releasing more ailing prisoners, the Prisoner Review Board makes it harder for prison medical staffers to care for everyone else, Mills said. 

“What limited resources we have are being devoted to people who are most seriously mentally or physically ill, and that doesn’t leave any health care for anybody else at all,” he said.

The overburdened health care system also blocks more prisoners from getting out under the Coleman Act. Prisoners must be found qualified for medical release by a prison doctor or nurse before the board votes on their case. But prisoners often wait weeks or months to know whether they qualify, records show. In one case, a prisoner at Illinois River Correctional Center waited 152 days before finding out he didn’t qualify for release, records show.

Prison medical staffers have said 240 prisoners who applied were unqualified for medical release. At least a handful of those prisoners lived in a prison infirmary, used wheelchairs or had terminal diseases including end-stage liver disease, and at least three died in prison, records show.

There are other frail and disabled prisoners who don’t see a doctor on a regular basis, “so there’s no way for the doctors to know about their condition,” Soble said.

Michael Merritt said his brother hasn’t received proper medical treatment in prison for years, and he’s afraid of what could happen as his dementia worsens. 

Phillip Merritt should be allowed to die at home, where his family can take turns caring for him, instead of in a prison cell, where he’s unsure whether there’s anyone to properly look after him, his brother said.

“I don’t know what the problem is,” Michael Merritt said. “They know they can’t take care of him in there the way he is supposed to be taken care of.” 

The Prisoner Review Board didn’t tell Merritt why it denied his brother a medical release. The board’s deliberations happen behind closed doors, and the law doesn’t require them to provide an explanation.

Republicans in on votes more often

Shelton said members weigh many factors when voting on medical release requests, primarily focusing on applicants’ prior convictions, where they plan to live if released and testimony from victims of their crimes. 

Under state law, the board is required to be split roughly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. The 12 current members include former law enforcement officials, educators, attorneys and counselors. Pritzker appoints all of the board members, who then must be confirmed by the Illinois Senate.

Medical release requests are decided by panels of three board members. At least two must agree for a request to be approved or denied.

Shelton said board members are “chosen randomly” for the panels. So far, though, Republicans have cast more votes in medical release cases than Democrats  — and they are much more likely to vote to deny those requests, an analysis of voting data shows.

Three of the four board members with the highest denial rates — Jared Bohland, Kenneth Tupy and LeAnn Miller — are Republicans. Each voted to deny release in more than 70% of the cases they heard, and each voted on more than one-third of all medical release requests.

Bohland and Tupy, along with Democrat Matthew Coates, were on the panel that denied Phillip Merrit’s medical release request in July. They voted to deny six out of seven requests that day, records show.

A month earlier, Bohland was part of another panel, this time with two other Democrats, hearing the case of Saul Colbert, 82. Like Merritt, Colbert developed dementia while serving time for armed robbery. Both had previous violent convictions — Merritt for attempted murder, Colbert for murder. Both had family ready to take them in. And both were represented by the same attorney with the Illinois Prison Project. But the board voted 2-1 to release Colbert, with Bohland voting against.

“The only difference between those cases was the panel,” Soble said.

Through a spokesperson, Bohland, Tupy and Miller declined to discuss their voting records.

Lisa Daniels, a former board member and restorative justice practitioner, said she thinks some of her former colleagues are ideologically against letting anyone out of prison early.

They “simply believe that a person should complete the entirety of their sentence no matter the circumstances they present in their petition, no matter how that person may have shown themselves to be redeemed and no matter [whether they’re] no longer a threat to public safety,” Daniels said.

Lisa Daniels, a former Illinois Prisoner Review Board member.

Lisa Daniels, a former Illinois Prisoner Review Board member.

Daniels resigned from the board in January, one of eight Democrats to step down or fail to be reappointed since 2021. In the past few years, the state Republican Party has turned the board into a new front in the debate over criminal justice reform. 

Democrats, who have a super-majority in the Senate, haven’t mustered enough support among their own ranks to get all of Pritzker’s appointments through, leaving the board with three vacant seats.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Pritzker declined an interview request. But, speaking at a news conference Thursday, he said, “The Coleman Act is, in fact, being carried out as it should be.”

The governor acknowledged that some medical release applicants “really can’t function” and are unlikely to commit another crime if released but said, “Just because the person is ill doesn’t mean that there aren’t factors that are being considered and need to be considered about a case and whether somebody should be released or not.”

But that runs counter to the law’s intent, according to Soble.

“The eligibility conditions are extremely strict and narrowly tailored to apply to only the sickest and most expensive people in the prison healthcare system,” she said. “With that in mind, almost every eligible person should be released if we are to realize the Coleman Act’s purpose.”

Law ‘failed to live up to its promise’

The day Pritzker signed the Coleman Act, its main sponsor, state Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, said the law would transform Illinois’ prison system and allow families to properly say goodbye to loved ones.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t afford this mercy to Joe Coleman, but I’m proud that we’ll be able to do so for hundreds of other Illinoisans,” Guzzardi said.

Criminal justice reformers celebrated the Coleman Act as a model for other states. In a report last year, FAMM, a prominent national advocacy group, said the Coleman Act was one of the strongest “compassionate release” laws in the country.

So far, though, it has “failed to live up to its promise,” said Mary Price, FAMM’s general counsel and the report’s author.

Advocates want lawmakers to institute changes to the Coleman Act to encourage the Prisoner Review Board to release more people — among them requiring board members to visit prison infirmaries to see the state of prison health care. They want the board to get more training on how to evaluate the medical conditions of prisoners applying for release.

Advocates want the state to provide prisoners who are applying for medical release with an attorney to argue their case. Guzzardi said he’ll introduce a bill to do that in the fall veto session.

Lawmakers also should allow prisoners to reapply for medical release sooner than currently allowed, said William Nissen, a white-shoe-lawyer-turned-pro-bono-attorney for prisoners who has worked on a handful of medical release requests.

Prisoners denied medical release have to wait six months before they can reapply unless they get an exemption from the board. Shelton has approved three of 10 such requests so far, according to figures provided by the board’s chief legal counsel.

“If you’re representing a terminally ill person, then a large part of their remaining life is gone before you can even apply again,” Nissen said.

Nissen said lawmakers should also require the board to explain why they denied a medical release to “instill a certain amount of discipline in the decision-making process.” If board members have to articulate their reason for denying someone release, maybe they’ll reconsider the decision, he said.

Phillip Merritt’s attorney is in the process of refiling his client’s medical release request.

Michael Merritt said he hasn’t been able to reach his brother in three weeks. The cellmate who helped facilitate their calls apparently was transferred.

But Merritt said he’s certain he and his family can give his brother a more humane sendoff than any prison could.

“At least, he could go peacefully,” he said.


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