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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Acting on the premise of go big or go home, prisoner-rights lawyers recently asked a Chicago federal judge to release roughly a third of the inmates in Illinois’ prison system.

They argued that the inmates’ health is threatened by the coronavirus pandemic because the Illinois Department of Corrections is not moving fast enough to stop its spread within state prisons. The only alternative, they argued in federal lawsuits, is mass release.

U.S. Judge Robert Dow rejected the lawyers’ request, noting that they were required to show, for starters, “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ health. Contrary to that standard, Dow noted, prison officials have taken and continue to take a variety of remedial measures to protect inmates.

“In the end, this court concludes that (the inmates) are not entitled to their request for extraordinary relief, even in these extraordinary times,” Dow wrote in a lengthy opinion.

Just how extraordinary circumstances are or will become in the state’s prisons remain to be seen.

The corrections department reported Tuesday that 146 inmates out of roughly 36,000 statewide have tested positive for the coronavirus. Of those 146, 124 are at Stateville. The Sheridan Correctional Center has 10 inmates who have tested positive, while 12 other facilities each have five cases or fewer. Pontiac has one, while the prison in Danville has none.

It was obvious from the outset that the prisoners’ lawyers bore a heavy burden in arguing for mass release of convicted felons serving sentences.

Even if their request had legal merit, the judge noted that mass releases are no way to go, as “release is untenable on a class-wide basis, because the possibility of release is an inherently inmate-specific inquiry.”

On top of that, Dow pointed out, there’s also the not-so-small matter of the public interest in the prisoners’ request.

“All of them are incarcerated because a jury convicted them of committing crimes, including some of the most serious crimes against our community. Many of them are violent offenders. Compelling a process to potentially release thousands of inmates on an expedited basis could pose a serious threat to public safety and welfare,” Dow wrote. “The risk of recidivism comes into play, as do concerns about victims’ rights. The question is not simply what is best for the inmates — the public has vital interests at stake, too.”

That’s hardly a breathtaking observation. Indeed, it’s more akin to a blinding glimpse of the obvious. But the lawyers don’t see it that way.

Indeed, one member of a broad coalition of prisoner-advocate legal-aid groups argued that they had waited patiently for action by the corrections department and only filed their lawsuits when forced to do so.

“The progress here has been incredibly slow. There is no time to waste,” Northwestern law Professor Sheila Bedi told the Chicago Tribune.

The corrections department, however, has taken multiple actions to head off spread of the virus behind prison walls. They include refusing to accept new prisoners from county jails, activating the Illinois National Guard to assist at Stateville, locking down facilities at prisons where coronavirus cases have been identified and granting up to six months in credits for inmates on the verge of release.

The corrections department filed legal papers disclosing that it has reduced its prison population by “more than 1,000 inmates between March 2 and April 6” as a means of coping with the pandemic.

Dow noted that the prisoners’ lawyers sought mass release for their clients, but “do not ask to improve the cleanliness of the prisons or increase the amount of space between inmates at each facility and so on.”

The prisoners’ lawsuits remain pending. All Dow did was deny their request for a preliminary injunction authorizing the mass release.

But here’s the question many Illinoisans following this litigation must be wondering: On what basis can lawyers ask for and receive an order from a federal judge authorizing a mass release of prison inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic?

Their lawyers allege the inmates are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To win the mass-release order, they need to show that state officials are deliberately indifferent to the pandemic’s potential to harm inmates, that there is no other “adequate remedy at law,” that they had a “reasonable likelihood” of winning the lawsuit on its merits and that the inmates would suffer “irreparable harm” if the order is not granted.

Dow said under the “deliberate indifference” standard, the inmates “have no chance of success,” because the state is “trying very hard to protect inmates against the virus.”

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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