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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Central Illinois Jails Plan For Coronavirus Spread Among Inmates, Staff

McLean County Jail
Eric Stock
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage.

The number of inmates held at the McLean County jail dropped to 153 this week as most low-level offenders are processed on the street without a trip to jail, a move aimed to lower the risk of the coronavirus spreading to the county detention center.

“We’ve encouraged law enforcement, if they feel it’s prudent, to issue I-bonds on the street or refer low level and traffic cases to the state’s attorney for review. Judges have suspended work release and weekend sentences so these individuals are not coming in and out of the jail,” said McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage.

No testing has been conducted on staff or inmates for COVID-19, said Sandage.

“No one has exhibited any symptoms,” said Sandage.

The sheriff said he does not plan to release inmates in the wake of the virus outbreak. The current jail census includes three people held on misdemeanors, with the remaining inmates facing felony charges.

“I’m not trading one public safety issue for another,” the sheriff said of the suggestion by some that jails release inmates to reduce potential spread of the virus. The goal of using jail space for serious offenders was set a decade ago by the McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a consortium of criminal justice and community leaders.

Precautionary measures for those booked into the 455-bed facility include more extensive medical questions and temperature checks. Correctional staff and other workers also are checked daily for elevated temperatures.

Any inmate who tests positive for the virus will be placed in quarantine in the jail’s newly remodeled medical area, said Sandage. The facility includes two negative pressure isolation cells to prevent cross- contamination from room to room.

The county’s emergency plan has provisions for transferring critically ill inmates to the hospital, according to the sheriff.

On March 12, the McLean County Sheriff Department was the first county in Illinois to restrict jail visits. Sandage said he’s fielded some complaints about that directive, but “everyone is being inconvenienced right now. There are people in hospitals and nursing homes who can’t have visits.”

A staff member who comes down with the virus as a result of their work at the jail will be quarantined in housing outside the jail and away from their home, said Sandage.  

A portion of the 140 sheriff’s department employees face a challenge at home with childcare issues, noted Sandage. Unlike other county workers who may have the option of working from home, sheriff’s employees are considered essential staff.

“They’re trying to get the job done here, and get it done at home,” said Sandage.

Statewide Concerns

With one correctional officer and two Cook County jail inmates receiving treatment for COVID-19, sheriffs across the state have concerns about their facilities, said Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs Association.

Frequent conference calls between Illinois sheriffs and law enforcement partners in other states focus on shared supply needs and methods to limit the chance of exposure, said Kaitschuk. Shuttered schools as a potential source of cleaning supplies for jails is one example of how those conversations are producing novel solutions to unmet needs.

“Everybody has something to contribute,” said Kaitschuk.

Kaitschuk said the government mandate that people keep a safe distance from one another means law enforcement officers have limited access to peer support during the health crisis.

“I hope people think seriously abut the mental health of health care workers and first responders,” said the ISA director.

In Woodford County, the jail population that normally hovers around 60 has dropped to 45, said Chief Deputy Dennis Tipsword. He declined to offer specifics, but said “a plan is in place” to reduce the number of people cycling through the jail.

The county has not done testing on staff or inmates. Two deputies with possible symptoms of the virus were tested by their personal doctors and reported negative results, said Tipsword.

“It’s a double-edged sword for public safety employees. They don’t want to take it home to their families, potentially, but they want to be here to do their job,” said Tipsword.

Woodford County staff and inmates undergo daily temperature checks. The jail has space to separate inmates who test positive, said Tipsword.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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