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Sheriff: Jail Exceeding Recommended Population

Peoria County

The Peoria County Jail currently has too many detainees, and the Illinois Department of Corrections has not helped the situation.

“We’re kind of like a water balloon,” said Sheriff Brian Asbell. “It just keeps growing and growing and growing. But at a certain point, we have no more space left.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, health guidelines established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have mandated distancing and reduced the maximum populations for detention facilities.

“You’re not allowed to double-bunk,” Asbell said Monday. “So, if you have 492 beds, only half of those can be used. So, you’re around a 250 maximum population we can have at the jail, and today we have 270.”

Asbell said the crowding problem at the jail is even more difficult to manage with budget and staff reductions.

“Everyone’s having financial troubles, but we’ve had to open three new housing areas that ... we had closed for the last four or five years because of a lower population,” said Asbell “Each of these housing units take staff to manage, and traditionally it takes five full-time employees to man one housing area. Counting all three shifts, that’s 15 more employees at a time that we’re going through budget cuts.”

One of the biggest problems has been an inability to transfer prisoners from the jail to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). Asbell said he has about 50 detainees that need to be turned over to the state agency.

Last week, 18 of those individuals were bused to a state facility only to be sent back when one of them tested positive for the coronavirus on intake.

“They pull out a sample of five at a time, and the first five detainees that they pulled off our bus, one of them tested positive on this rapid test,” said Asbell. “They tested a second time, and at that time the warden came down and ordered all of our detainees back on the bus and told our staff that they would not accept anyone.”

In his March executive orders, Gov. JB Pritzker suspended transfers to IDOC facilities. He rescinded that order two weeks ago, and Asbell notes a recent preliminary injunction should block the state from refusing prisoners.

“With this court order and an Illinois law states that even if these individuals were positive or negative, the Department of Corrections still needs to accept them,” said Asbell, adding the detainee in question tested negative upon his return to the jail. “That’s kind of the largest point here.”

Asbell said the jail is still considered a COVID-19 outbreak facility by the CDC, but 34 of the 39 detainees who tested positive for the virus are now considered in “recovery status.”

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Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.