Cook County sheriff takes state officials to court over stalled prison transfers

A person stands in front of a barbed-wire fence outside the Cook County Jail. They are holding a sign, which obscures their face, which reads "Covid Kills. Free Prisoners Now. Prison is Not a Death Sentence. #JusticeForNick #BLM"

risingthermals, via Flickr

A protestor stands outside the Cook County Jail, June 13, 2020.

Update (Oct. 1): The Illinois Supreme Court denied taking up Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s petition Thursday. In a statement, Dart’s office said it is “exploring other legal options.”  A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.

Hundreds of people who have already been convicted and sentenced to prison are being held at the Cook County Jail because of an ongoing quarrel between the sheriff’s office and state prison officials over the best way to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in carceral settings.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has been asking prison officials for months to take in more than 500 people who should be in state custody, saying continuing to house them at the jail is straining his ability to contain Covid-19. But officials at the Illinois Department of Corrections have said they can’t take in transfers quicker without risking the virus spreading at state prisons.

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The impasse has kept people incarcerated for months at the jail — where the Covid-19 infection rate is higher than in state prisons — and has potentially caused them to miss out on earning sentence credits that could get them out of prison faster, the sheriff’s office said. A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections said it was unclear whether people are eligible to earn time off their sentences while they’re incarcerated at the jail.

In the latest escalation, Dart filed a petition Monday asking the Illinois Supreme Court to force the corrections department to immediately accept more transfers from the jail. State officials have until Sept. 27 to respond before the court takes up the issue, a spokesperson for the state supreme court said.

“For more than a year and a half, the Illinois Department of Corrections has avoided its responsibility to take custody of individuals sentenced and remanded to its custody by the [Cook County] Circuit Court,” Dart said in a statement. “IDOC’s refusal to accept its mandate and accept these individuals into its custody comes at a severe cost for the Cook County Jail.”

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The sheriff’s office said in May that keeping people at the jail who should be in state prisons has cost the county upward of $38 million — a figure that officials for the state department of corrections disputed.

Corrections department spokesperson Lindsey Hess said intakes from the jail are scheduled for “each day that space is available” at its Northern Reception and Classification Center at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, where new admissions are processed before they are sent to prisons across the state.

Hess said the department has taken in more than 3,900 people from the Cook County Jail since last August and processed more than 1,300 “turnarounds” — people who’ve served their entire prison sentence in jail but still have to be processed in person by state prison officials before they are released.

Space at the reception center is limited because of social distancing measures and the need to quarantine new transfers who aren’t yet vaccinated, Hess said.

“The more individuals in county jail custody who accept the vaccine, the greater the number of admissions IDOC can accept,” she said. “Unvaccinated individuals put other people housed in IDOC facilities at risk.”

The county jail and state prisons have vaccinated about two-thirds of the people in their custody, according to officials at both agencies.

Brad Curry, the sheriff’s chief of staff, said the department’s logic is a “slap in the face” to the state’s law enforcement agencies, which are expected to arrest and detain people regardless of their vaccination status.

“Everyone has had to find ways to uphold their responsibilities and work hard to protect arrested or detained persons, as well as their staff, from COVID-19,” Curry said in a statement to Injustice Watch. “Everyone except IDOC.”

Bureaucrats fight, incarcerated people wait

Gov. J.B. Pritzker suspended all transfers to state prisons when the pandemic shut down the state in March 2020. Transfers resumed four months later but on a limited scale and at the discretion of correctional officials. The sheriff’s office claims that the state isn’t moving quickly enough. In May, Curry proposed a timeline to Rob Jeffreys, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, to take in hundreds of transfers in June and July. Jeffreys rejected the proposal.

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The ruling by a Logan County Circuit Court Judge could cut the Cook County Jail population by ten percent.

About 250 of the people at the Cook County Jail waiting to be transferred are convicted of a felony, and nearly one-third of them have less than six months until their anticipated release, according to the sheriff’s office. Another 285 people are incarcerated on a parole hold but would otherwise be eligible to be released from jail on bond.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, said he was most concerned about the people who are potentially being held past their release date.

“Unfortunately, this happens way too often. A dispute between bureaucracies ends up hurting the prisoners,” Mills said. “The bureaucrats fight about who is going to fill out which piece of paper; meanwhile, someone sits in a jail cell when they should be home. It’s appalling.”

The sheriff’s office and state corrections officials both say they are looking out for the health and safety of their staff and the incarcerated people in their custody. Jails and prisons have been hot spots for Covid-19 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic because of limited cleaning and sanitizing tools, the inability to socially distance, and the flow of staff and incarcerated people between the community and carceral settings.

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Track the coronavirus cases inside Cook County jail

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Injustice Watch has been tracking the number of cases and the population inside the Cook County Jail.

As of Wednesday, 26 people at the Cook County Jail were currently positive for Covid-19 out of nearly 5,700 in custody, along with 16 correctional officers. The state’s prisons had 56 positive Covid-19 cases out of more than 28,000 incarcerated people and 112 cases among correctional staff.

Dart and Pritzker have mandated that all correctional staff get vaccinated in the coming weeks. As of Wednesday, two-thirds of jail staff have been vaccinated, compared to less than half of prison staff.

Dr. Eric Reinhart, a resident physician and a public health anthropologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine whose research focuses on the spread of Covid-19 in jails and prisons, said the scuffle over transfers obscures the root problem, which is that incarceration is bad for public health.

“[Mass incarceration is] massively self-destructive to the entire country. It harms incarcerated people, it harms guards, and it harms communities,” Reinhart said. “As we’ve seen during the pandemic, it fosters the spread of infectious diseases throughout our entire country.”

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