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State, sheriffs remain at odds on prisoner transfers
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State, sheriffs remain at odds on prisoner transfers

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Mike Downey

Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey – one of the sheriffs involved in a lawsuit against the state regarding transfers from county jails to state prisons – is pictured in a file photo at the Illinois Statehouse in February. 

SPRINGFIELD — After a Logan County judge ruled Monday that the Illinois Department of Corrections must accept transfers from county jails, the state filed court documents aiming to reverse the temporary order.

While the Logan County court is scheduled to consider a motion temporarily staying the order Friday, the state also filed an appeal to 4th District Court of Appeals asking for a stay from the higher court. The request had not been granted as of Thursday afternoon.

At the center of the lawsuit filed by Illinois sheriffs is whether the governor and the state have statutory authority to delay transfers into IDOC facilities. In March, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order citing the COVID-19 pandemic as reason to delay transfers into state facilities.

On July 27 — one day before a scheduled Logan County court appearance — Pritzker filed another executive order resuming admissions to IDOC facilities at the discretion of the IDOC director as long as certain safety measures relating to the pandemic are followed.

Those include quarantine, social distancing, masking and testing requirements.

On Monday, Aug. 3, however, Logan County Judge Jonathan Wright issued a temporary injunction requiring the state to accept transfers at the IDOC facilities. In the decision, he wrote, “IDOC does not have authority under the Illinois Uniform Code of Corrections to deny acceptance of a person committed to IDOC by the courts of this State.”

“This Court hereby enters a preliminary injunction in favor of Plaintiffs ordering that the Illinois Department of Corrections, by and through its agents, accept transfer from any Sheriff of all offenders for whom the IDOC is statutorily required to accept,” he wrote.

Jim Kaitschuk, a spokesperson for the Illinois Sheriffs Association, said sheriffs have been able to deliver “some inmates” to state facilities in the two days following the order, although the state said at least two intake facilities reached capacity.

That’s because inmates transferred in are held in isolation for 14 days in single cells as a quarantine measure aimed at mitigating spread of the novel coronavirus and there is limited capacity for such holdings.

While the ISA spokesperson said the state has been difficult to work with, a spokesperson for Pritzker said sheriffs have “disregarded” COVID-19 precautions put in place to ensure safe transfers.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Pritzker administration has prioritized protecting the health of inmates, the staff who work with them, and the surrounding community,” Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s press secretary, said in an email. “IDOC worked closely with (the Illinois Department of Public Health) and other health experts to develop protocols that would allow local sheriffs to safely transfer inmates from their jails to IDOC facilities.

“Those guidelines have been disregarded and despite IDOC’s willingness to provide county sheriffs with monetary and operational support during the pandemic, that aid has been rebuffed. By refusing assistance and ignoring COVID-19 health guidelines, sheriffs are jeopardizing the surrounding communities as well as lives of the men and women trusted to their care.”

Wright, however, wrote that county sheriffs have a greater hardship in housing inmates than the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, as IDOC has options such as releasing an inmate on parole, offering diversion programs or providing a system of supervision and guidance for committed persons in the community.

Sheriffs in the state, the judge wrote, “have no option but to house a person committed to IDOC until the transport of said person to IDOC can be achieved.”

In a statement, IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess said the department has been “closely monitoring other state prison systems where there have been major COVID-19 outbreaks due to offender transfers.”

“The Department learned from their experiences and developed strict guidelines to prepare for the resumption of intra-agency transports and new admissions. Monday’s ruling will make it significantly more difficult for IDOC to follow these guidelines going forward,” Hess said in an emailed statement. “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.”

She said IDOC, with the assistance of the IDPH, is “testing all new admissions and appropriately quarantining them upon arrival.”

Kaitschuk, however, argued last week that some of the safety requirements are difficult for county jails to meet, because COVID-19 test results must have been received within three days before the transfer, and tests results often take longer than that. If an inmate has to leave a facility for a test, that restarts the requirement of 14 days of quarantine as well.

“Based on the sheriffs that I have talked to across the state, the average time is between five and seven days (for a test result) unless it's an instant test that they have access to. And no one does…” he said in an interview last week. “They've set this up in such a way that it's a virtual impossibility to meet.”

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.

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