Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is slamming Illinois Gov. JB Prtizker’s decision to largely stop accepting new prisoners into the Illinois Department of Corrections, an attempt to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19 behind bars. Instead of going into state prisons, those detainees will be held in jails under the supervision of county sheriffs.
“If someone thinks that is proper, they need to get a new job,” Dart said. “People who do that clearly don’t look at it as we are in this thing together. That’s every man for himself. And I clearly don’t think anybody who’s thoughtful would be doing that at this time.”
But criminal justice advocates have praised the governor’s move as a way to help slow the spread of COVID-19. They say Cook County has drastically reduced its population in recent years so Dart has more space to facilitate social distancing.
The advocates also say limiting transfers between facilities will help contain the spread of the virus. As of Friday morning, the Cook County jail had 38 detainees who tested positive for the disease.
“If a single prisoner, who may be a carrier but is not yet showing any symptoms, is transferred from Cook County to IDOC … by the the time he is processed into a cell, he has come in contact with hundreds of other prisoners and dozens of staff,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.
On Friday afternoon, the Illinois Department of Corrections reported 17 COVID-19 cases among prisoners and staff, including cases at adult transition centers, where prisoners prepare for release.
As for actions at the jail, Dart said he has been doing everything he can to stop the spread of the virus, including screening detainees for symptoms and putting most people in single cells to allow for social distancing.
Dart said he also plans to keep sending inmates to state facilities under the limited exceptions allowed by Pritzker’s executive order.
“They said they’ll still be having exceptions for people who pose an issue at the jail or because of crowding issues. Clearly because I have to single cell, because of social distancing, I have a crowding issue," Dart said. "So we fully plan on sending people down there.”
Criminal justice advocates have been calling for weeks for both the jails and prisons to release people, especially those who are elderly or sick.
County officials, including the public defender and state’s attorney, say they’ve been working to review cases of people for release this week. Dart said on average about 20 to 30 people a day are being released as part of that process. Dart also said there has been a major decrease in the number of people being arrested and brought to the jail, from about 200 a day to about 60 to 70 a day.
The jail population was 5,003 on Friday, down from 5,440 on Monday.
SEIU Local 73 and the National Nurses United, which both represent staff in the jail, praised the actions so far. But in a written statement they said, “while these are important steps, they do not go far enough to protect all of us from the threat of COVID-19. Indeed, Cook County must drastically reduce the jail population.”
Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at email@example.com.