Updated on Aug. 5 with a statement from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
A Logan County judge struck down Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s ban on transfers from jails to state prisons on Monday.
The ruling clears the way for approximately 2,000 people in county jails across Illinois to be moved to state prisons, according to the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, which filed the lawsuit challenging the ban.
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Pritzker issued the ban on March 26, as the COVID-19 pandemic had begun to spread rapidly, especially in correctional settings. The goal of the ban was to slow the spread of the virus inside the state’s prisons.
In a statement, Illinois Department of Corrections spokesperson Lindsey Hess said the department has developed “strict guidelines” for transfers based on observations from other state prison systems.
“Monday’s ruling will make it significantly more difficult for IDOC to follow these guidelines going forward,” Hess said. “As of Tuesday, despite this ruling, IDOC is making every effort to follow the guidelines as closely as possible to ensure the health and safety of staff, the incarcerated population and the surrounding community. The Department, with the assistance of IDPH, is testing all new admissions and appropriately quarantining them upon arrival. Preventing the spread of infection is our top priority as we continue to aggressively respond to COVID-19.”
The decision comes less than a week after Pritzker issued a new executive order that reinstated transfers at the discretion of the director of the department of corrections. The order stipulated that the agency has to take “several health and safety factors” into account, including the capacity of intake facilities and whether the people being transferred had been quarantined and tested negative for COVID-19.
In Cook County, 34 of the nearly 500 people who were awaiting transfers to state prisons have already been moved, according to Matthew Walberg, a spokesperson for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Hundreds more who have either violated their parole or who were sentenced to prison since the ban went into effect are set to be transferred “in the coming days,” he said.
Walberg said that jail officials are “pleased” with the ruling, but unhappy that the governor’s office did not respond to their repeated requests over the past several months to reinstate transfers to state prisons.
“Since March, the unilateral decision by Gov. JB Pritzker to halt all transfers has unfairly forced Sheriff’s Offices around the state to bear the burden of housing and caring for hundreds of convicted inmates who should rightfully have been in state custody,” Walberg wrote in a statement.
The transfers will reduce the Cook County jail population by about ten percent, making court-ordered social distancing measures easier to implement. Reducing the jail population has become more urgent as the number of people held at the jail has increased by nearly 1,000 since mid-May.
According to the department’s guidelines, first reported by The Southern Illinoisan, transfers from county jails must have proof of a negative COVID-19 test performed within 72 hours of the transfer and will quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Anyone who is symptomatic and tests positive upon arrival will be sent back to the county jail they came from, along with everyone else in their transport.
Still, Curtis Ferdinand, who was released from Hill Correctional Center in April after 24 years behind bars, said he is concerned that an influx of new transfers could put his friends who are still inside at risk.
“I’d be really worried about having gotten this far without any incident, without getting sick or anything, you know, making sure that I’m taking care of myself, then here comes somebody from somewhere else who hasn’t been around us for the past 90 days,” Ferdinand said in an interview with Injustice Watch. “They’re coming from somewhere else, so we don’t know their history.”
In a commentary in June, Ferdinand criticized the department of corrections’ pandemic response and lack of transparency with people in their custody.
“The staff was being pulled in different ways about safety protocols, and that left them confused and left us feeling very vulnerable, which led to a panic among the population,” he wrote. “The feeling inside was so tense that we began to feel like this was going to be some ‘only the strong survive’ scenario.”
Though he said he’s heard the response to COVID-19 at Hill has improved since he got out, he called on the department to provide more transparency to people in their custody about where transfers are coming from and to follow through on its own COVID policies.
If he were still in prison today, he said, he would not feel comfortable about having a new transfer in his cell.
“That’s a scary situation,” he said. “If somebody asked me… would I let somebody in my cell like that… of course you really don’t have a choice, but no, I wouldn’t.”