Can I Sue If I Contract COVID in an Illinois Jail?

Correctional facilities such as jails and prisons are legally required to take reasonable steps to keep inmates safe. If you or a loved one contracted COVID while incarcerated in Illinois, you may have a legal claim. Legal action is already underway against state officials and others who have neglected their duties to safeguard prisoners’ health. A dedicated civil rights attorney may be able to help.

After the coronavirus pandemic broke last year, prisons and jails saw an explosion in the number of sick inmates. Some prisoners had underlying health conditions, making them particularly vulnerable to the virus. Although the state promised to take swift action to control the outbreak of COVID, activists pointed out that cases began to surge, prisoners began to die, and the problem wasn’t letting up.

Sick inmates present a unique legal situation that can’t be compared to the general public. For example:

  • Inmates lack the ability to control their own health behind bars
  • Due to overcrowding, inmates frequently share close quarters with others, increasing the risk of spreading and contracting a disease
  • There are few options for social distancing and mask-wearing, as these present security issues
  • Jails and prisons are uniquely responsible for keeping their inmates healthy

Activists have sought the release of inmates from jails and prisons, particularly considering the crimes for which they’re imprisoned, underlying health problems, the amount of time left on their sentences, and other factors. But, that provides little comfort to an inmate who has already contracted COVID. While an inmate who develops COVID during his or her stay in prison may receive taxpayer-funded healthcare, someone who has already left incarceration will be stuck with medical bills and related expenses. Both current and former inmates may further experience pain and suffering and other damages that might be compensable.

Fortunately, a civil rights lawsuit may be able to win some measure of justice. Civil rights violations are actionable under what’s called a Section 1983 lawsuit. This is named after the portion of the U.S. Code that allows citizens, including inmates, to sue state government officials for violating their civil rights. At issue in such lawsuits is whether the jail, prison, and other relevant agencies or officials took appropriate steps to limit the spread of coronavirus and keep inmates safe.

State government officials and agencies may not be the only parties liable for an inmate developing COVID. Much of jail and prison healthcare is farmed out to third-party contractors, private businesses that are responsible for keeping inmates healthy. Injured prisoners may have both state and federal claims against the responsible parties (public and private) who caused them harm.

The first thing an injured inmate should do, whether they are currently incarcerated or were in jail when they contracted COVID, is document what happened. That includes making a record of their conditions, particularly overcrowding, that may have exposed them to COVID. A civil rights attorney can take steps to obtain evidence regarding policies and conditions in jails that might have unnecessarily harmed prisoners. A lawyer can also help document your damages and assign an appropriate dollar value to them.

If you or someone you love became sick while in custody, talk to the civil rights attorneys of Hale & Monico. Give us a call today to learn more about your legal options.