“They’re back on lockdown. They let them go to yard. After that, there were too many cases. So they put them on lockdown. With no yard.”

Name: Melly Rios

“My husband says he’s doing good.”

She says husband but they’re not married. Not yet. In her mind, they’re a team. It’s not a ring. It’s not a dress. It’s not a fancy party. It’s a mindset, this is how you love someone on the inside.

Husband: Benny Donjuán Rios

Sentence: 45 Years

Time Served: 18 Years

“Just to show how much we take life for granted, right. He called me and he’s like baby I’m so happy! I’m so excited! And I’m like what happened? Tell me. He’s like it’s been a really great day. Guess what? And I’m like what? And he’s like, I ate a lime. He was that excited because he ate a lime.”

When life deals you lemons, make lemonade. Right? That’s common knowledge. But who ever heard when life deals you limes, brag about it to the woman you love. 

It’s not really bragging, is it? It’s more like a confession of love, opening up about a small thing, a seemingly small thing, when in fact it’s the opposite, it’s the biggest thing because it wakes up joy, it tastes like hope.

“You know how many limes I throw away? And I’m like baby that’s so good. I’m not gonna tell him, oh a lime? That would bring his whole mood down.”

That’s the thing about love. Sometimes it’s tangy. Sometimes it’s tart. But sharing your life, what could be sweeter?

Benny Donjuán Rios is incarcerated at Stateville.

He has a home waiting for him with Melly.


As efforts continue to slow the spread of COVID-19 at Cook County Jail by reducing the inmate population, Gov. J.B. Pritzker could help the effort with the stroke of a pen.

Pritzker should lift an executive order that now prevents 120 convicted detainees at the jail from being transferred to state prisons. The governor announced last week he was extending the executive order through the month of May, along with other statewide stay-at-home measures imposed in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Transferring the 120 inmates would provide some relief to Cook County Jail as it fights a pitch battle against a virus that has infected 800 detainees and guards. One corrections officer and six detainees have died from the coronavirus so far.

Meanwhile, a team that includes Cook County prosecutors, public defenders, representatives from the chief judge’s office and jail officials have reduced the number of jail detainees from 5,600 at the start of the pandemic to just under 4,000 now.

Action by the governor now would further that difficult but necessary reduction in the jail’s population.


COVID-19 ALERT: Metropolitan Correctional Center

For weeks, as the coronavirus spread through the Cook County jail and state prisons, Chicago’s downtown federal lockup continued to report no cases of the virus among its detainees.

That’s changed.

Six inmates in Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center have now tested positive for the coronavirus, according to John Murphy, executive director of the Federal Defender Program in the Northern District of Illinois.

That’s a sharp uptick from Tuesday, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed one inmate had tested positive for the first time.

It could also lead to renewed scrutiny about who is held there. Before the first positive test, Chicago’s federal judges did not appear inclined to release inmates for fear of the virus alone. But Wednesday afternoon, defense attorneys began making new bids for release on behalf of individual clients, citing the new number.

“Once it gets started it seems to accelerate fairly quickly,” Murphy said of the virus in an interview.

In its daily tally of coronavirus cases Wednesday, the BOP reported just one inmate with coronavirus at the MCC. It also said eight staff members there had tested positive.

Officials have said at least seven of those staff members have had limited contact with inmates.


LOCKDOWN: What It Means Inside Prison

“We’re being told in the free world that social distancing and sheltering in place is the appropriate response—so then it is probably the appropriate response in prison too,” said Craig Haney, a psychology professor from University of California, Santa Cruz who has studied the effects of isolation on incarcerated people.

“The difference is that what it means in prison is so much more onerous.”

Alison Horn, an investigative supervisor with the nonprofit legal organization Civil Rights Corps, said she worried that fear of a solitary quarantine or a unit-wide lockdown could lead prisoners to hide how ill they are.

“If the response to having symptoms is punitive,” she said, “that discourages them from speaking up about it. You need people to be honest about their symptoms.”



As the coronavirus rips through prisons and jails across the United States, much of the attention has been focused on Rikers Island, the New York City jail which, with an infection rate that reached 7.8 percent as of April 13, is now responsible for the single largest concentration of coronavirus cases in the world.

But across New York, incarcerated people serving out sentences in state prisons face the same grave risks—and attorneys are racing to file emergency petitions for their release, appealing to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive power to grant clemency.

They have exclusively shared these petitions with The New Republic (redacted to preserve privacy, as they include details of medical histories).

“As a group, these individuals are particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of Covid-19 or are close to the point at which they would otherwise be entitled to release,” David E. Loftis, attorney-in-charge of post-conviction litigation at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “Releasing these individuals from prison will drastically diminish the risk that they will be exposed to the coronavirus.”

The petitions contain little of the dry legal language that is often the hallmark of other court documents. In a handful of pages, attorneys attempt to tell the story of a life that doesn’t translate to their criminal records.

In these documents, there are snapshots of lives that existed before incarceration, and what might exist after.


Mark Clements On Cook County Jail

The conditions at Cook County Jail can only be described as inhumane.

Once I arrived at the jail there were as many as thirty different brothers jammed inside of a cage. I immediately started to address this and ask why is this occurring and based on that the lieutenant then decided to spread everyone out.

There are no cleaning materials. The guards have hand sanitizer but hand sanitizer is off limits to the prisoners.

I can share that, from the time I was brought into the Cook County holding area in Maywood, Illinois, up until the time I arrived at the Cook County Jail and until the time I was bonded out, I was never provided with soap, a towel, or anything to safeguard myself other than a cloth mask.

Guards touched us, some of them wore gloves and some of them did not wear gloves. I was fed a bologna sandwich each meal along with a drink for each of the six different meals I had while under the control of the Cook County sheriff’s department. One of the things to take into consideration about this virus is that it can be spread when food is not properly heated up and now you are being fed cold food and have no way to wash your hands because you have no access to soap.

For me, I had no access to soap for the course of two days. That is inhumane at a time like this.


Carla & Carl: With Love From Lawndale

“The longer version of his name is Carlvosier. We go by Carl but we made fun of his name when we were growing up.”

Name: Carla Felton

Fiancé : Carlvosier Smith

She laughs easy when talking about Carl, the kind of laugh you get from growing-up together.

“My mother and his mother went to grammar school together. On the west side of Chicago in the North Lawndale Neighborhood. As they got older, on the weekends, when my mom would go see her best friend, we would go over to Carlvosier’s house,” she said. “I’ve been knowing him practically all my life.”

Chicago is deceptive. It looks like everyone lives in the same city. But growing up, reality is shaped by the neighborhood you call home. You’re navigating a very different reality making your way to school in Edgewater as opposed to East Garfield Park.

Carla’s High School: Senn

Carl’s High School: Marshall

Having said that, not everything always works out according to plan.

“So there was a time period growing up where unfortunately my mother experienced homelessness,” she said. “Her best friend, Carl’s mom, she opened up her door to us. For several years we actually lived in the same home. I wouldn’t say at that age we had eyes for each other, cuz we were young. It was one of the most hardest moments of my life. I was actually able to become close to him because when I was experiencing homelessness, it was extremely shameful and embarrassing. For somebody to, you know, pretty much welcome you like that, to embrace you, to show you that much love during a rough time, it caused us to be close.”

Shelter In Place is a funny thing. It’s a circumstance forged out of tragedy and yet if you slow down to notice what’s going on, it’s hard not to recognize the nobility in taking on the problem instead of hoping for the virus to magically disappear. Carl’s mom saw a need and she opened her door. She didn’t have to, it wasn’t her problem and yet without the intention of passing on a lesson, she was teaching Carla how to love.

Having said that, not everything always works out according to plan.

“We did lose contact for some years,” she said. “It was difficult, being so young. I gotta be honest, I stepped away. I didn’t write as much. I didn’t go see him as much. But as I got older, and I got a little bit more smarter, and I got a little bit more wisdom, and I actually started to study about mass incarceration and how unfortunately there are a lot of black men who are incarcerated, and who are wrongfully incarcerated. I began to research his case and talk to him about it. That’s when we got close again.”

Incarcerated: Stateville

Time Served: 17 years

Carl got involved in drugs. The very same drugs that are now legal in Illinois, the very same drugs making John Boehner a Marijuana Millionaire sitting on the board of Acreage Holdings. When you think about how some people get-off with a pass while others serve hard time, it’s easy to get cynical.

But Carla doesn’t have time for that nonsense.

“You listen to people who tell you, oh he’s incarcerated! You know, don’t worry about him. Move on with your life. You have your whole life ahead of you. You don’t know what happened. You don’t know what the situation was like. You know, go on and move on with your life. And I listened! And that’s exactly what I did,” she said. “But I should have never did that. I should have stayed in contact with Carl. And I should have learned more about his case.”

Ah yes, the shoulds. Like pretty much all of us, Carla is running to keep up with the shoulds. In case you’re wondering, the shoulds go something like this…

By now you should be married. By now you should have a billion dollars in the bank. By now you should be living in a state where justice is restorative, where parole is earned through the merit of growth, where you are not defined by the worst thing you have ever done, where it doesn’t take a global pandemic to wrap a sense of urgency around the need for mercy.

It’s madness. Ignore the shoulds. The shoulds will make you crazy. You are where you are. Give yourself a break. Live your life. Fight the good fight. Love the man you’re lucky enough to love – speaking of which – Carla wants Governor Pritzker to know that Carl has a home and a life with her already unfolding.

Where Carl Will Live: Chicago, Illinois

Who Carl Will Live With: his soon to be wife, Carla

“Now that I’m older, now that I’m more mature, now that I raised my level of consciousness, I realize somebody has to be his support system, somebody has to be there for Carl,” she said. “To advocate.”

Carla’s mom is still best friends with Carl’s mom. They look forward to the wedding.

COVID-19 MERCY: Pritzker Grants Clemency

After nearly four decades in prison for his role as the lookout in two gas station robberies, Basil Powell was given a second chance at life Thursday.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker commuted the former Chicago man’s natural life sentence earlier this week amid mounting pressure from prison reform advocates urging the release of elderly or ill inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.

Powell, a 68-year-old grandfather with diabetes and high blood pressure, has been in prison since 1986 under an old tough-on-crime sentencing law that labeled him a habitual criminal and forever slammed the prison door shut after his third class X felony conviction.

Instead, Powell walked out the gates of Dixon Correctional Center a free man Thursday, eager to spend the remaining years of his life with his family in Joliet.

“I feel good, like a thousand bricks got up off my shoulders,” he said in a telephone interview as his daughter drove him home.

“I didn’t think this day would come like this. I’ve been fighting all my life to get out and kept being told no.”


COVID-19: Cook County Jail In Crisis

It started small. On March 23, two inmates in the sprawling Cook County jail, one of the nation’s largest, were placed in isolation cells after testing positive for the coronavirus.

In a little over two weeks, the virus exploded behind bars, infecting more than 350 people.

The jail in Chicago is now the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections, according to data compiled by The New York Times, with more confirmed cases than the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., or the cluster centered on New Rochelle, N.Y.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, said Wednesday that 238 inmates and 115 staff members had tested positive for the virus.

But those figures most likely downplay the actual problem, the jail acknowledged, because the vast majority of the jail’s 4,500 inmates have not been tested.