Across Chicago and its surrounding counties, more than 1,000 inmates are packed in jails as they await transfer to state prisons due to an ongoing fight over COVID-19 safety protocols between state and local law enforcement agencies.
The backlog has far-reaching consequences, according to a review of internal meeting minutes, inmate logs and interviews with local and state officials by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project. Those include:
- Inmates, including many awaiting transfers for nearly a year, spending a half-million days in Chicago-area jails when they were supposed to be in state prisons;
- Dangerous overcrowding and fights in those jails;
- Strained budgets, including tens of millions in costs to continue housing the inmates in Cook County and elsewhere.
The inmate backlog has also been exacerbated by the comparatively low vaccination rates among prison staff, which has made it harder to safely house inmates at the state’s penitentiaries due to strict COVID protocols that are still in place, officials say.
The backlog of inmates in Cook, DuPage, McHenry, Kendall, Kane, Lake and Will counties are scheduled to be sent to state custody for a variety of convictions, including drug possession, sex abuse, armed robbery and involuntary manslaughter.
In March 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker halted all transfers from county jails to the state prison system because of the pandemic. The state sheriff’s association and 89 Illinois sheriffs sued and an agreement was brokered between the state and counties to allow transfers on a case-by-case basis.
But sheriffs say the process for transferring inmates has nearly ground to a halt. In the rare instance when inmates are selected to go to state custody, the process is shrouded in secrecy, they say.
“They’re setting parameters and making determinations all on their own with really no discussions with sheriffs or this organization,” said Illinois Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk. “They are taking some [inmates] but they’re picking and choosing. We still don’t know how they are picking.”
In Cook County alone, 796 inmates are still awaiting transfer to state custody, as of last week — more than a third of which were sentenced on gun possession charges. The number of inmates awaiting transfer in Chicago alone could nearly fill one of the largest jail facilities in the Cook County corrections complex at 26th Street and California Avenue — where corrections staff have been forced to work overtime to handle the additional inmates.
“What the IDOC fails to realize is the emotional impact and toll that it takes” on both inmates and staff, said Brad Curry, the chief of staff for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. “Not to mention the financial responsibility that they basically left the county sheriffs holding the bag.”
$240 a day
Among the total inmate population are some who have waited more than 200 days to be transferred to IDOC custody at a cost of $240 a day for each inmate. Last month, in a letter to IDOC, Cook County estimated that holding these prison-bound inmates has cost the county about $38.8 million throughout the pandemic, although officials expect some of those expenses to be reimbursed by federal funding.
As of last week, more than 5,900 people were incarcerated in Cook County Jail, surpassing the total jail population at the height of the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020, before the county released approximately 1,700 inmates to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
In DuPage County, there are 55 inmates — more that 10% of those being held — awaiting transfer into state custody.
In Lake County, 39 inmates are still being held in the county jail despite transfer orders, according to Christopher Covelli, lieutenant and public information officer for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Since the pandemic began, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office has spent more than $2.2 million housing 381 inmates who were meant to be held at IDOC, Covelli said.
For both jails, those numbers are historically high, county officials say.
“We need as much flexibility in space utilization to ensure that we are adhering to the strictest COVID mitigation protocols possible,” said Anthony Vega, chief of staff for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. “Having this large number of individuals that need to be at the Department of Corrections doesn’t help that.”
There have been multiple cases in which inmates have served their entire sentence at Lake County Adult Corrections Facility without actually making it to the IDOC facility they were sentenced to. The county jail has to send at least two staff members to drive the inmates to Statesville Correctional Center — a roughly two-hour drive south of Waukegan — so they can be processed in and out of IDOC on that same final day, Covelli said.
It is “a very inefficient process,” he said.
Staff vaccination rates trail inmates’
But officials with the Illinois Department of Public Health have pointed to another reason for the backlog: low vaccination rates among state prison staff.
As of last month, state records indicate that while roughly two thirds of IDOC inmates had been vaccinated, just one third of the state’s 13,000 prison staff at 35 facilities had received doses, according to data obtained through a public records request by the Documenting COVID-19 project.
An unnamed health official raised the issue to state health leaders at the internal meeting, noting that officials have heard from multiple Chicago-area correctional facilities that there are issues with sending people to IDOC facilities because of ongoing distancing and capacity concerns at the prisons with the majority of staff not vaccinated.
Dr. Catherine Counard, medical officer for IDPH’s Office of Health Protection, told meeting attendees there was nothing her agency could do, according to the minutes.
“IDOC is a separate agency over which IDPH has no control,” she said.
IDOC said last week that 41% of its staff and 69% of inmates are now vaccinated, and said they have processed nearly 8,000 new inmates since last August.
In a statement, IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess did not answer specific questions about the sheriffs’ concerns but said “intakes are scheduled based on space availability, quarantine requirements and COVID-19 test results.”
Neither officials with IDPH nor Pritzker’s office responded to requests for comment.
‘This is illegal’
Earlier this month, the sheriff’s association sent a letter to IDOC again urging officials to ease the burden on local jails, which it says have housed inmates that should be in state prisons for a combined 500,000 days since March 26, 2020.
“Though required by the Governor’s order, IDOC is not evaluating any health and safety factors when it determines transfer scheduling,” wrote Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle, who serves as president of the state sheriff’s association. “This is illegal and subject to judicial review.”
Said Kaitschuk: “They are simply taking advantage of sheriffs and thumbing their nose at us until they are absolutely forced to have to take these folks that they are required statutorily to do.”
The day before the sheriffs sent their letter, the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office wrote in an email to the state prison director that the situation was becoming more dire. “Some of these inmates have been awaiting transfer for several months and this is creating a burden on our housing availability,” Commander Colin Cantwell wrote in a June 16 email obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project. “Our population has been increasing and the need for these beds in our facility is becoming more and more critical.”
The backlog of transfers have left those in county custody on edge, officials say, and has caused tensions to rise in local jails housing an inmate population whose future is decidedly uncertain.
“They don’t know when they’re going to get to IDOC, when they’re going to start their parole plans, things like that,” Curry said. “That causes tension which causes fights and issues and disturbances.”
And outside groups that would typically be able to go into correctional facilities to assess the safety of conditions for inmates have been more or less shut out of some jails during the pandemic, as safety and visitation restrictions have remained in place.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director for the John Howard Association, a nonprofit that monitors Illinois correctional facilities, said that despite the state’s efforts to reduce the spread of the virus among the incarcerated, its transfer policies have had several “unintended consequences.”
And while efforts to educate inmates on the importance of getting the vaccine have largely helped to improve vaccination rates, their efforts haven’t worked with guards.
“What’s interesting is we haven’t been able to achieve the same kind of success with staff,” Vollen-Katz said. “The reality is that these are people who have a lot at stake. They work inside prisons, they are frontline responders whether they want to be or not.”
IDOC continues to regularly test staff for COVID, Vollen-Katz said, but when a worker refuses a test they are sent home and are not allowed to return to work until they have been tested, which can result in staff shortages.
Council 31, a division of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees which represents prison workers, acknowledged the employee vaccination rate lags far behind the inmates’ rate. The union said it is pushing its members to get shots.
Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall said prison staff talking with their co-workers about the vaccine has proven effective. Randy Hellmann, a longtime Illinois local union president with AFSCME and Council 31 executive board member, contracted COVID-19 two weeks before his vaccine appointment and died in March.
His last request of the union was to tell his story and use his experience as an example.
“People come to the issue from all different perspectives and have all different attitudes and concerns,” Lindall said of union members’ concerns that remain over getting shots. “The path back to normal daily life is when we are all vaccinated.”
Kyra Senese and Jacob Geanous are reporters for the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project, a collaborative open-records journalism initiative.