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Cook County sheriff accuses state prison of slowing inmate transfers based on vaccinations
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Cook County sheriff accuses state prison of slowing inmate transfers based on vaccinations

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, left, speaks to lawmakers while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol on Thursday in Springfield. 

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said more than 500 detainees are awaiting transfer to state prison creating a powder keg in his jail and forcing him to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to intercede.

The Illinois Department of Corrections stopped the transfer of detainees in March 2020 because of the pandemic and after resuming five months later, the process has since slowed to crawl.

Costs to cover extra food and provisions for the detainees and overtime for jail guards has reached $62 million, Dart said, and continues to leave ripple effects across the county jail, from overworked guards to angry detainees trapped in limbo.

“It would be no different than, when COVID hit, (if) I told Chicago police or Oak Lawn police that for the next 18 months you’re going to have to hold people in your lockups in your departments because I’m shutting the jail down to keep it secure from COVID,” Dart told the Tribune, days after filing a petition with the state Supreme Court asking it to force IDOC to take the overdue detainees. “You can’t do that!”

The state Supreme Court denied Dart’s petition Thursday.

IDOC officials said Cook County transports are brought to its Northern Reception Center, the system’s intake and processing unit, as space becomes available. They said they would continue to adhere to “aggressive guidelines” to protect the prison population.

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

However, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a vaccination requirement for state workers at prisons and other congregate living facilities in early August, just 44% of corrections workers were fully vaccinated, compared with about 69% of detainees. Pritzker recently extended the vaccination deadline to Nov. 18 after union pushback.

Statewide, nearly 64% of the eligible population of residents 12 and over is fully vaccinated, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Some detainees with parole holds have the money to be released on bail but are forced to remain in custody until they are transferred to IDOC and can see the parole board. Other detainees can’t start their prison sentences, possibly lengthening the amount of time they will be incarcerated.

“If you’re involved in certain programs down at IDOC, that will reduce your prison sentence. You can’t get in those programs if they’re sitting with me,” Dart explained.

Though the holdovers make up about 10% of the jail’s population, Dart said they’re responsible for a 40% spike in jail fights. “Why? Because they don’t care,” Dart said.

“They’re not supposed to be there. They don’t want to be here with me anymore and they don’t care if they pick up a battery case” he said.

Dart said he cannot force a detainee to be vaccinated and said the law compels IDOC to take them, regardless of their vaccination status.

The sheriff’s suit cites state law that outlines transfer policies between county jails and prison facilities, as well as a new law that mandates house arrest for nonviolent offenders with less than four months on their sentence.

Researchers with Northwestern University and the World Bank recently found that jails across the country were “infectious disease incubators” and encouraged alternatives for incarceration during the pandemic.

Prison reform groups have advocated reducing the prison population for minor crimes in an effort to keep down virus transmissions. Incarcerated people have died at a rate unparalleled in the general public, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit. Another group found more than 500,000 COVID cases in American prisons over a 15-month period.

“Legally, I’m not supposed to hold any of them,” Dart said. “With vaccination, without vaccination, with a test, without a test, with quarantine, without quarantine, no, no no. The law clearly says when you have a sentence or a parole violation, you go down to IDOC. They haven’t been doing that.”

Dart said his office has followed the state’s intake instructions to the letter, including testing and quarantining transfers. He called IDOC’s focus on vaccinations a smoke screen meant to keep their facilities clear of COVID-19 at the expense of county jails.

“There’s a reason they don’t have a 100% vaccination rate. They know you can’t force it on people. I can’t either,” Dart said.

Filed along with Dart’s petition were more than 150 supporting documents to show the state’s transfer requirements and proof that the county jail has been in compliance.

The prison watchdog, John Howard Association, said it is awaiting details from both agencies before it can assess the root cause but said Dart’s suit raises important questions.

“It is deeply concerning that there are people at the Cook County Jail who have been sentenced to state custody and may be held past their release date or miss opportunities to earn sentencing credits to shorten their lengths of stay, this must be remedied immediately,” the group said in a statement.

While the number of holdovers has decreased from about 1,000 to about 540, Dart said the costs continue to mount, the number of people awaiting transfers is bubbling back up, and overtime has become a problem.

“Over the course of the 18 months, I’ve had to tell an individual to stay beyond their shift. I talk to my folks and they told me originally that it was fine because they were making a lot of money on overtime,” he said. “But for the last year, they’re just burnt out.”

A representative for Teamsters Local 100, which represents the jail’s guards, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Suing (the prison system) was not high on my list of things to do,” Dart said. The final straw came in mid-September, when state officials took their largest group of detainees in months.

A week before filing the suit, Dart said he had second thoughts after a transfer of about 400 people, the most since the pandemic started.

“I said ‘guys, hold off on the lawsuit. If they’re making a good-faith effort, then we don’t need to complicate anyone’s lives with lawsuits.’ ” Dart said. “And then they just stopped and the jail (population) numbers are growing again and they told us they wouldn’t be taking another big group of people. You cannot do this. This is wrong!”

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