By Beth Hundsdorfer
Capitol News Illinois
The Illinois Department of Corrections announced Tuesday that it would pause intake of inmates from county jails amid the COVID-19 surge.
As of Friday, IDOC reported 1,042 staff members and 1,684 inmates were positive for COVID-19.
Sheriffs who are charged with operating county jails around the state say IDOC’s decision puts more stain on county resources and personnel.
“Unfortunately, IDOC did not provide any communication or collaboration with the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association or any Sheriff regarding this suspension of intake although we have repeatedly offered a willingness to discuss issues with the Department,” Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said in a written statement. “As people are aware, crime is continuing to occur and arrests continue to be made by law enforcement as we work to combat crime in our communities,”
In March 2020, the Sheriffs’ Association filed suit against IDOC. An appellate court found in August 2020 that that the governor has authority to “control… the movement of persons” within a disaster area as designated through the governor’s disaster proclamation. It also noted the sheriffs did not argue against Pritzker’s authority to extend a disaster proclamation multiple times.
Gov. JB Pritzker issued a new executive order resuming the transfer of inmates to DOC in August 2020, but stated, “the scheduling of the arrival of individuals from county jails and the intake process to ensure the health and safety of the transferring individuals, as well as all individuals and staff at IDOC, shall be within the sole discretion of the Director of IDOC.”
IDOC resumed county jail intakes on Aug. 3, 2020, with aggressive guidelines in place to protect the health and safety of staff, the incarcerated population, and the surrounding community, said IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess. Since that date, IDOC has processed 14,890 new admissions and 2,263 turnarounds for a total of 17,153 intakes.
“The Department’s reception centers are at capacity with no space for new admissions,” Hess said. “The classification process is continuing. When the individuals at our reception centers are no longer in quarantine or isolation, they will immediately be transferred to their facility which will open space for intakes.”
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said Wednesday that there were currently about 15 inmates ready for transfer to IDOC. The jail capacity is currently 418. There are currently 467 in custody. Before the pause, Watson said inmates transferring into IDOC needed to have a negative COVID test and be quarantined for 14 days.
“We are fighting an invisible enemy here,” Watson said. “We have plenty of PPE, cleaning supplies and testing for now, but how long will this go on?”
Watson and other sheriffs said they offer the vaccines and booster shots to county jail inmates.
IDOC reported that from June 29, 2021, to the present, only 44 percent of individuals transported to the Northern Reception Center from Cook County Jail were vaccinated. Since Aug. 3, 2020, county jails have transported approximately 225 individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 upon their arrival to IDOC.
Madison County Chief Deputy Jeff Connor said he met with all the police chiefs in the county and apprised them of the situation. The Madison County Jail currently houses 290 inmates. The jail’s capacity is 306. The jail is currently holding 28 people who were scheduled to be transferred to DOC.
“This really puts us behind the eight ball. It puts a strain on our staff and local police departments,” Connor said.
Until they are transferred to DOC, counties will have to pick up the tab for food, utilities and medical costs.
“Housing inmates who have been ordered to be transferred to IDOC creates a significant financial burden,” said Lake County Deputy Chief Chris Covelli, who has 20 inmates awaiting transfer to DOC. “Not only do our day-to-day costs increase, it creates additional overtime for staff, and it creates significant liability should an inmate become ill, or suffer a serious medical event,”
IDOC has been working with county jails for four months to distribute $25 million in appropriated CARES Act funds to the county jails as reimbursement for expenses incurred because of the COVID pandemic, according to Hess.
Connor and Watson both commented that IDOC has the luxury of putting constraints around the inmates who go into their facilities, but county jails must accept prisoners who are held over until their criminal cases are decided, creating a bottleneck in county facilities.
Watson said he’s been in communication with the judiciary. St. Clair County Circuit Judge John O’Gara said there are 37 factors in the statute that a judge can consider when setting bond, but overcrowding in the county jail isn’t one of them.
“But obviously, this is concerning for us. I look at the totals every day,” O’Gara said.
Kaitschuk pointed to IDOC capacity six years ago when the numbers were 40,000 inmates to current levels around 19,000. There are spaces, he said, but DOC must be willing to adjust to rising COVID-19 levels just as counties do.
“This decision by DOC will only further exacerbate the challenges at the local level. I don’t believe that they recognize or care about the hardships they are creating for the jails because if they did they would be working with us to address the issues,” Kaitschuk said.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.