Terminally ill or medically incapacitated prisoners can apply for early release. But the Illinois Prisoner Review Board has denied twice as many requests as it OK’d — and seven prisoners died months after their applications were rejected, an Injustice Watch / WBEZ investigation found. 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.
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. 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.