Illinois Prisons Are Refusing New Prisoners As COVID-19 Spreads

Pontiac Correctional Center
On Thursday Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker issued an executive order stopping admissions into the Illinois Department of Corrections as the state fights the spread of the coronavirus. Robert Wildeboer / WBEZ
Pontiac Correctional Center
On Thursday Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker issued an executive order stopping admissions into the Illinois Department of Corrections as the state fights the spread of the coronavirus. Robert Wildeboer / WBEZ

Illinois Prisons Are Refusing New Prisoners As COVID-19 Spreads

Updated Friday at 1:42 p.m. to reflect revised numbers from IDOC

The Illinois Department of Corrections will refuse to take in new prisoners, with very limited exceptions, as the state seeks to slow the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. An executive order halting new prison admissions was issued Thursday by Gov. JB Pritzker as a total of 12 corrections staff and prisoners have tested positive for COVID19.

The order will likely have the biggest impact on county jails, under the authority of sheriffs, where people are typically incarcerated prior to being admitted to the state prison system.

The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association criticized the new order, saying it puts counties at higher risk and makes local governments bear additional financial costs.

“We’re on the front lines,” said Jim Kaitschuk, Executive Director of the Illinois Sheriffs Association. “Local sheriffs need to be able to safely and securely transfer healthy inmates out of their facility to a state correctional center to mitigate risk, prevent overcrowding and slow or minimize the spread within the correctional system.”

Cook County reported 17 confirmed cases of jail detainees with COVID-19 Wednesday, a dramatic rise from the two cases Monday. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the governor’s order.

Last week a group of civil rights organizations signed an open letter to the governor with a range of requests, including that no new prisoners should be brought into Illinois’ crowded prison system.

Alan Mills is executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, one of the organizations that signed the letter. He commended the governor for taking the “powerful and necessary step that stops one path of transmission into the prisons.”

“Unfortunately, it didn’t happen until after some people in prison were already infected with COVID-19,” Mills said. “Now we need to stop it from spreading by getting as many people as possible out of prison, starting with those most at risk of death from the virus.”

The confirmed cases in the Department of Corrections announced Thursday include a staff member at Sheridan Correctional Center and five prisoners and two staff members at Stateville Correctional Center. However, the Department corrected that number on Friday to include only one staff member at Stateville. The Department also announced a prisoner had tested positive at the Northern Reception and Classification Center, where many inmates are first processed into the custody of the Department, but on Friday announced that was an error and reported there were no confirmed cases at the NRC among prisoners but 3 cases on the staff.

In addition, one staff member and two prisoners have tested positive at adult transition centers, facilities where some prisoners go as they prepare for release.

It’s unclear how many people will be added to Cook County’s jail population as a result of the governor’s order. County Officials, including the Public Defender and State’s Attorney, say they’ve been working to review cases of people for release this week. On Thursday 5,185 people were incarcerated in Cook County jail, about 400 less than there were a week ago.

Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at sheffernan@wbez.org.

Editor’s note: The Illinois Department of Corrections released revised information Friday on the number of confirmed cases among staff and prisoners and where those people are incarcerated or work. This article reflects those changes.