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

Community Orgs Call For Decarceration, Housing During COVID-19 Crisis

McLean County Jail
Eric Stock
The McLean County jail in downtown Bloomington.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage has said he does not plan to release inmates at the McLean County jail in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

But the team of McLean County organizations leading a grassroots response to the crisis isn’t taking no for an answer.

Members of Illinois People's Action, Bloomington-Normal Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter Bloomington Normal organized a conference call Wednesday night to outline demands of local elected officials, including a call for Sandage to decarcerate the jail.

Call attendance peaked at 85, including speakers. 

Olivia Butts of Black Lives Matter Bloomington Normal explained decarceration would mean releasing all inmates currently held on cash bail, and only adding to the jail population those who present an immediate public threat. 

Faces during a videoconference mtg
A screenshot of Wednesday night's meeting.

Louis Goseland of Bloomington-Normal Democratic Socialists of America said “the folks who are in the jail right now being held on bond are not people who’ve been found guilty of a crime; they’re being held because they can’t come up with the money to get out.”

Without the funds to leave, Goseland said, these inmates are kept in close quarters without access to testing, putting them at higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus. 

The group also wants Sandage to waive fees for phone and video calls with inmates. 

Butts invited a woman named Jenny to share how the coronavirus has impacted her ability to communicate with a loved one currently being held at the jail.

Jenny said while before the virus she was able to make three video calls a week for free, she now has to pay $3.75 for a 15-minute phone call, and $7.50 for a video call.

She said her loved one shares a pod with 58 other inmates, with inmates cycling in and out of the pod. 

“He’s really scared because he has really bad asthma, he’s on like three different medications,” Jenny said. “He’s scared that if (coronavirus) gets in the jail, that he will basically die in jail.”

In a previous interview Sandage told WGLT no inmates or staff have received tests at the jail because “no one has exhibited any symptoms.”

He also said he’s “not trading one public safety issue for another” by releasing inmates. Sandage said the jail has already taken precautions to protect inmates and staff from exposure, including processing low-level offenders on the streets, and more extensive medical questions and temperature checks for those coming into the jail. 

Goseland and other organizers said they’ve shared their demands with Sandage via email, with no direct response. 

Now the group is planning to take greater measures.

“We need to make sure that he knows that we are watching and that we are insisting that he no longer use our public tax dollars and the position we’ve entrusted him with to put these folks’ health and lives at risk,” Goseland said. 

The group has organized a “call-in day of action” Friday, encouraging the public to call Sandage and McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp to share their demands.

Democratic candidate for the Illinois 88th House District Karla Bailey-Smith suggested the group encourage the public to send printed copies of its demands to Sandage. 

“I feel like maybe a deluge of hard-copy letters from people in the community might carry a little more weight than emails,” she said. “Emails are just so easy to ignore.”

Other Demands

The group also called for the City of Bloomington and the Town of Normal to get involved to make sure residents have basic needs met during the pandemic. 

Illinois residents have been ordered to shelter in place, avoiding nonessential travel and practicing social distancing to help stop the spread of the virus.

But as ISU student Radiance Campbell explained, “not everyone has a shelter to safely retreat to.”

Some residents, like the homeless and victims of domestic violence, aren’t safe in the places where they’re staying, she said.

“People shouldn’t have to choose between being on the streets or sleeping in a shelter with 50 other people where they are at extreme risk of contracting an infectious virus,” she said.

Campbell said with its student housing, recreation centers and hotel rooms sitting vacant, Normal is “well-positioned” to designate alternative housing for residents without a safe place to stay.

The town can’t force businesses to do so, so it should provide incentives to encourage business owners to convert their space into alternative housing, Campbell said. 

The group also wants Bloomington and Normal to set aside money to provide financial assistance to residents whose livelihoods may be impacted by the virus, including rent and mortgage assistance, childcare subsidies, utility payments and emergency assistance for small businesses.

Candyce Byrd worked in food prep at First Wok until the owners decided to close the restaurant to keep customers and staff from being exposed to the virus. 

She said her family was already living paycheck-to-paycheck before the crisis. Now she has until April 1 to find a way to cover rent and bills without her regular source of income. 

“My paycheck has already been spent on the bills that I had due for this month, and the amount of food that we have left is not going to last us past the first week of April,” Byrd said.

She receives public assistance, but that won’t be enough, Byrd said.

“It’s a supplemental income,” she said. ‘It’s not something that you can live off of for 30 days. It’s meant to be paid to you in order to assist with your paycheck that you already receive.”

Some participants on the call asked if the group had considered how promised federal aid could help local residents. 

Rachel Shively of Bloomington-Normal Democratic Socialists of America said it’s better to be proactive than wait.

“Local governments know the needs of our people best,” she said. “They’re most in contact with us and our community. I’m not sure that the federal response is necessarily going to meet all the needs that people in our community have.”

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner joined the call for a brief Q&A, during which he said he would be willing to call for a special city council meeting to discuss assistance for residents impacted by the crisis. Renner said he would want to make sure he could garner the five votes from council members necessary to pass any proposals. 

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.

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