CHICAGO (WLS) -- ABC7 I-Team has zeroed in on federal prisons, where controlling the spread of the COVID19 virus has been a serious challenge.
Illinois has been hit especially hard, with four federal prisons among the nation's 20 most infected.
With public lockdowns a remedy for trying to manage the spread of coronavirus, it might seem that jails and prisons would be ready-made to keep COVID-19 in check. However, public health experts said that is not the case. With new inmates entering facilities and employees coming and going, prisons are a breeding ground for the virus.
Out of 122 U.S. prisons, the Thomson federal penitentiary in northwest Illinois is the 4th most infected facility in the nation with 13% of the all-male inmate population COVID-positive. The infected include 181 inmates and 14 staff.
In addition, nearly 200 prisoners and staff at Greenville Prison have previously had coronavirus and recovered. And in southern Illinois, Marion prison is the 8th most infected in the country with 114 inmates and 11 staff.
In 16th place is the Pekin Correctional Institution south of Peoria, where 66 inmates and six staff members are infected.
With four prisons in the top 20, Illinois is tied with Texas for the most infected federal facilities.
Professor Lori Ann Post is the Director of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine -Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics. She studies and measures transmission for all kinds of populations.
"We're living in a hotspot so I would say that prisons that are next to high population, or of the highest population states, are going to have higher cases of COVID," said Post.
She adds that inmates are in a super high-risk position, saying, "They share showers, they share you know meals and they share where they sleep. So, they have no way to social distance and they don't have any way to protect themselves."
Since last March, 137 federal inmates and two employees have died.
Local jails have also felt the pandemic punch.
"We may have barbed wire. We may have brick walls. They are porous. What happens in the community greatly impacts the jail," said Dr. Connie Mennella, the Medical Director at Cook County Jail.
Cook County Jail curbed an early COVID-19 outbreak according to Sheriff Tom Dart, who said the current spike in Illinois is also a jailhouse problem.
"The detainees who come into our custody come from the community. And so if the community is not under control; if the community is not being serious about masks and social distancing; and the COVID is spreading, it will impact us negatively there's no two ways about it," said Dart.
Illinois Department of Corrections officials said they too have anticipated a potential increase in COVID-19 cases as prisoner transfers and the intake of inmates from counties resumed. Both of those had been stopped early in the pandemic.
Currently, 700 Illinois state prison inmates are sick with COVID-19, along with more than 500 IDOC staff.