The crowding of the McLean County Jail, and its relationship to a COVID-19 outbreak there, took center stage at Tuesday’s county board justice committee meeting.
On July 29, the jail reported its first COVID case. By Tuesday, that had grown to five cases, three of which are inmates.
At the start of the meeting, livestreamed on YouTube, more than a dozen submitted public comments were read to the committee. Every statement, required to be 5 minutes or less, strongly criticized McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage’s handling of the pandemic in the jail.
But he and States Attorney Don Knapp doubled down on the argument that Gov. JB Pritzker and the state’s continued refusal to take 43 prison-bound inmates from the county jail is to blame.
Early Tuesday, following a court ruling that the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) must take the inmates, McLean County jail staff drove 36 prisoners to Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. But the majority were turned away, said Sandage. Only three were permitted entry.
“Our first van left Bloomington at 5 a.m.,” said Sandage. But counties from across the state also were bringing their prisoners. So, by 2 p.m. when McLean County’s five vans reached the gate, the prison staff said it already was full.
Knapp said after inmates began arriving Tuesday morning at state prisons, the state filed an appeal asking the judge for a stay. Now, it’s again a waiting game. The Fourth District Appellate Court could issue a decision anytme, Knapp said.
The Illinois Sheriff’s Association filed the lawsuit after Pritzker in March suspended all admissions to IDOC from county jails.
Meanwhile, more than 40 inmates housed in McLean County's jail should be in IDOC, and that's "causing some space issues when we're trying to quarantine and isolate for COVID," said Sandage.
Public comments scathing
Among the nearly 15 comments read aloud at the committee meeting, several themes emerged. One was that commenters were concerned county officials and Sandage had ignored community warnings that the virus would strike the densely populated jail. Many comments claimed Sandage and his staff weren't taking serious COVID precautions, such as wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines.
"This is infuriating to know that COVID is going to spread like wildifire within these walls, and there will be no urgent medical assistance to some of these people," Candice Byrd wrote in her comment.
Another popular topic in comments was a call for de-carceration, or letting more people out of jail, especially those still awaiting trial and remaining in jail only because they can't afford to post bail.
Commenters also shared anger at the county earning profits that increase based on higher jail occupancy, especially as it pertains to a paid videocall program through ICSolutions (Inmate Calling Solutions). "It is a disgusting abuse to profit off incarcerated people," wrote Matt Toczko, referring to the video call costs.
Several raised concerns over reports Sandage rejected ICSolutions offer in March to drop the fees during the pandemic jail lockdown, and then misled county board members about the situation.
"How are we to have trust in our community leaders when the county sheriff, the county staff are lying to their own colleagues and the public?" Cecelia Long asked in her comments.
After the 30-minute period expired, committee Chairman George Gordon noted all comments, including those not read because of time constraints, would be entered into the meeting's minutes. However, no other committee members responded directly to the comments, nor did the sheriff.
Sandage did clarify the jail's visitor's center reopened June 1, allowing for onsite video calls to inmates at no cost.
He also said inmates and staff are being tested for COVID-19 every five days, until no positive cases are found. The entire jail is on a lockdown to limit movement, and an outside company is coming Wednesday to sanitize the jail, he added.
Of the five cases in the jail, Sandage said it could be much worse. None have required hospitalization. “I feel very fortunate to this point that that is all we have,” he said, praising staff for mitigating and controlling the disease outbreak in the jail.
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