Five McLean County jail inmates are among scores of defendants whose court-ordered transfer to a state mental health facility has been delayed because of COVID-19.
Ninety-two defendants are on a waiting list for admission for inpatient care, Illinois Department of Human Services spokeswoman Meghan Powers said this week. Another 18 are in state care waiting to be released back to jail, said Powers.
With its new mental health unit staffed with trained officers, McLean County is in a better position than most counties to deal with the backlog of mental health transfers. But keeping people who need treatment in jail is problematic, said Melinda Fellner, director of inmate services at the jail.
“We could be holding people for a much longer time than we would be if they received treatment,” said Fellner.
In some cases, inmates are restored to mental competency at the jail after they receive counseling and psychotropic medications. That progress is largely dependent on an inmate’s willingness to cooperate with treatment, including taking recommended medications, said Fellner.
“We have a couple who are declining, but others are consistent with taking the medications that are provided,” she said.
Jails are not allowed to force people to take medications, but those who comply with treatment often see substantial improvement in their condition.
Under normal circumstances, an inmate suspected of being mentally ill during the commission of a crime would be evaluated and, if found mentally unfit to face charges, be transferred to a state facility for treatment--a process that may take up to a year. Delays in those transfers are common, but the current stoppage without a proposed end date has raised concerns across the state.
The transfer of mentally ill inmates stalled in late March with Gov. JB Pritzker’s order ending all transfers in and out of state facilities. The measure, aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, has put a strain on county jails already seeing increased populations because of a similar order refusing to accept new admissions to the Department of Corrections, said Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriff’s Association (ISA).
“It’s becoming increasingly problematic for our jails and for those folks who shouldn’t be in our care and should be getting treatment,” said Kaitschuk, noting for many defendants, the wait in jail may amount to the time a person would serve if convicted.
“You may deal with your crime but you’re not better,” he said.
The backlog of sentenced inmates who are sitting in jail awaiting transfer to prison also places a burden on jails, according to the ISA director.
Unlike the state’s prison system that has seen a drop of about 6,000 in its population since January, county lockups are starting to see their numbers increase as police return to pre-pandemic arrest protocols for low-level offenders, said Kaitschuk.
“We take people all the time. It’s irresponsible for the state to refuse to take anybody. This can’t persist,” said Kaitschuk.
In May, the sherff's association filed a lawsuit in Logan County, home to men’s and women’s prisons, seeking to force the state to accept transfers from county jails.
McLean County has seen a slow increase in its population in recent weeks, hitting 210 inmates this week, from historic lows during the early stages of the pandemic, said jail superintendent Diane Hughes.
“It’s been lower, but we’re getting more people now as things are getting back to normal,” she said.
The Department of Corrections declined comment on when the ban on transfers may be lifted, citing pending litigation.
The IDOC “remains focused on responding, mitigating and controlling COVID-19 to protect those who live and work in our facilities,” said agency spokesman Greg Runyan.
According to the IDOC, 184 staff and 274 inmates have tested positive for the virus.
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