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As McLean County jail faces staffing crunch, Jail Review Committee stands ready to help

Jessie Krienert is chair of the Jail Review Committee and also a professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University.
WGLT file
Jessie Krienert is chair of the Jail Review Committee and also a professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University.

It's been four years since the opening of McLean County's $43.5 million jail expansion. That was aimed at dealing with overcrowding and the expanding mental health needs of inmates.

Now, staff shortages are causing new problems at the jail. The sheriff recently had to send dozens of inmates to another county’s jail as a stopgap until more correctional officers can be hired.

Watching this unfold is the county's Jail Review Committee (JRC), which was founded in 1980 at the suggestion of then-Sheriff Steve Brienen. It is a free-standing volunteer body whose members are appointed by various community groups to serve as their representatives. Part of its mission is educating the community about what’s happening inside the jail, said chair Jessie Krienert.

“A lot of times in corrections, it’s a very closed system. So people who aren’t working in the system don’t really have a lot of information about what goes on inside,” said Krienert, also a professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University. “The goal was to find members of community organizations that could be part of (JRC) and really learn about the jail and how it works and bring it back to their respective organizations to serve an educational function.”

Another objective is to identify areas of concern. The JRC surveys inmates every few years. Several years ago, that survey found that inmates weren’t happy with the aging collection in the jail’s library. So JRC worked with community partners to update it, Krienert said.

To be clear, the JRC does not have a formal oversight or disciplinary role relative to the jail. The jail is run by the elected sheriff, currently Matt Lane.

“We’re always paying attention to issues of housing and crowding and how that works. We’ve been really lucky to have a strong, working relationship with the jail. So we’re able to talk with the jail staff to find out how things are going. We certainly ask questions on how the jail is working, especially the newer areas of the jail that are now available,” Krienert said. “One of our long-term areas that we always focus on is re-entry. We try to work with community agencies and really pair them with the jail, to see what can be done for those re-entry gaps in the community.”

The JRC is monitoring and asking questions about the staff shortages at the jail, Krienert said. Lane has said those shortages recently forced him to send as many as 60 inmates to stay at another county’s jail. The county recently approved a new contract with the union that represents jail workers, and the sheriff’s department is bolstering its recruitment and retention efforts.

“Importantly, that’s reflective of a nationwide shortage of corrections workers. It’s not unique to McLean County in any way,” Krienert said. “It really hits jails even harder than it does state correctional facilities.”

Because of the staffing crunch, WGLT reported that some mentally ill inmates were being held in the jail’s booking area, a practice the county hoped to end with the opening of the $39 million jail expansion that included a unit for prisoners with a mental illness.

“It’s certainly unfortunate that we don’t have the staff to staff the newer areas that were built to really help with the mental health crisis we’re dealing with in corrections. And although booking is not the ideal place, the reason they’re kept there is because they can be watched at all times,” Krienert said. “When you’re dealing with someone with severe mental illness, you want to make sure that you are able to monitor them and see what’s going on and maintain their mental health as much as you can. We certainly understand the reason for moving them back to booking, even though it’s very unfortunate. And hopefully that will be resolved once we can get more staff the new areas that were built to address some of these issues.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.