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What is needed to get more special needs housing at the county jail

Emily Bollinger
Mentally ill inmates at the McLean County Jail have been housed in the booking area for months due to a staffing shortage.

Staffing shortages have been plaguing the McLean County Jail for months and with potential new officers still in a lengthy training process, it’s unclear when the jail might get back to full capacity.

Once it does, Sheriff Matt Lane said opening another unit for those with mental health concerns is "of interest."

In the meantime, around 43 inmates from McLean County's general population — who do not have serious mental health concerns — are at the LaSalle County Jail.

Currently, at McLean County, the jail's director of behavioral health and inmate services Jackie Mathias said there is only one “special needs unit” open. This is how she refers to the unit that houses those with mental health concerns. It has one corrections officer assigned to it.

“We don't have enough staff to make that a two-person post,” she said.

Until the jail reaches full staff again — which Lane said would be around 64 corrections officers and sergeants — this won’t be possible. He said he is working on this right now, with 14 officers in various stages of training, but it takes months.

Staffing numbers currently sit at around 41, he said.

He gave November as an estimate for when he might be back to full staff but said he couldn't be sure.

Effects of the staffing shortage on those with special needs

As a result of these shortages, inmates who have a mental health challenge are occasionally sent to booking. Mathias said examples of these inmates include those who are “smearing feces, they're not sleeping at night, they're up yelling, and they're not sleeping much at all.”

While not ideal for housing — the lights don’t dim and it’s an active space, with people moving in and out a lot, which can be overstimulating — Mathias said staffing shortages leave little room for options.

Inmates staying in the booking area was a more common practice at the county jail — prior to the jail expansion in 2019. The jail addition was supposed to signal the end of that practice.

Jackie Mathias sits at a table in front of a microphone in the WGLT studio.
Melissa Ellin
Jackie Mathias at the WGLT studio.

Placing these inmates in booking can be the best way to keep an eye on them, she said, adding that as things stand there is one officer watching over 16 inmates at a time in the special needs unit.

“There are more officers where we can observe them on a regular basis,” Mathias said about booking.

An additional officer could mean more people are allowed in the special needs area, “where the lights dim at night, where it’s calming colors.”

What it’ll take to get there

Mathias said getting both halves of the special needs unit up and running is important, but so is making sure that the inmates at LaSalle County are brought back to McLean County.

“You'd think less people would be better,” she said. “I'm actually looking forward to having all of our people back here with us, because that way we can actually do what we need to do on our end, as far as the services and the things that we want to provide to them.”

Lane said he is confident they can take back the inmates who were sent to LaSalle when he reaches his 64-person staffing goal.

Once that’s done, he said he can also potentially have more officers in the special needs units on rotating shifts.

For now, he’s waiting for the 14 officers in training — which includes a physical examination, a psychological examination, a polygraph, and a background check.

“It's very taxing, but we're working through it as quickly as we can but as accurately as we can,” he said.

Lane added that the process has been sped up “quite a bit,” but there is only so much he can do. Not all the candidates pass the background check and those who do still have on-the-job training ahead.

Each person that passes the background check goes through 12 weeks of training on the jail floor. They also go through an eight-week corrections academy at Macomb County Law Enforcement Training Center. Academy courses only start every few months.

“It does take some time to get people certified on the floor that are competent, know what they're doing, and can do the job correctly,” Lane said. “We're well on our way in the process with a lot of those people. But we're not by any means ready to open up a housing unit yet.”

Potential relief on staffing issues

Lane said staffing issues do not feel unique to the jail right now, but they face a harder job in recruitment.

“There's help wanted signs up everywhere, so I know it's not just us,” he said. “But we have a little different circumstance than some, and Corrections is a hard job. It's not easy, and it’s not for everyone.”

Now that the state Supreme Court passed a landmark law eliminating cash bail, there could be a trickledown effect on staffing.

Without cash bail, only those who are considered a flight risk will be forced to stay in jail while they await trials. This will inevitably shake up the jail population numbers statewide, but exactly how is unclear. If the population goes down, though, there may be less pressure to increase staff.

Still over a month away from seeing the law in action, Lane said he wishes he had more insight into what it means for McLean.

“I don't know that it will necessarily reduce the population for good, but I think it will at least temporarily reduce the population, which will ease some of my staffing concerns,” he said. “Or maybe I'm still going to need to hire and come up to full staff, but it may allow me to bring back people from La Salle quicker.”

Regardless of the long-term effects, Lane said he’s keeping hiring as a priority right now.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.
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