March 05, 2021

Why inmates are getting COVID-19 vaccine before some other high risk groups in Illinois

Corrections officers in Illinois prisons and county jails are among those next in line to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, and so are the inmates they are guarding.

Illinois is one of about 30 states that will vaccinate state prison inmates and county jail detainees at the same time as corrections officers. However, Illinois is one of the few states putting both inmates and corrections officers in one of the highest prioritized groups, according to research compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit prison reform and advocacy group.

“It’s in line with CDC guidance,” said Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “The federal government already began vaccinating prisoners in federal facilities back in December. Illinois has included all [federal] recommendations for congregate facilities as part of [Phase] 1b.”

The Phase 1b vaccine eligibility group is about 3 million people in Illinois and includes anyone 65 years or older and essential front-line workers such as police, firefighters, teachers, factory workers, public transit employees, child caretakers, grocery store employees, postal employees and the staffs of congregate living facilities. But the list also can include residents of congregate living facilities like homeless shelters, group homes and detention centers, although officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention left that to the discretion of state public health agencies.

Illinois chose to add inmates to the eligibility list, meaning they will be vaccinated before someone under 65 who may have an illness or disease that places him or her at a greater risk of dying if infected by COVID-19.

“I think there’s going to be outrage,” said Illinois Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, a Hawthorn Woods Republican. “Prioritizing healthy inmates over others who may be at higher risk is not just wrong, it’s immoral.”

McConchie suggests only inmates who doctors have determined are at a higher risk of severe symptoms should be inoculated in the next wave of vaccinations.

Since the outbreak began, 9,790 prisoners and parolees throughout the Illinois Department of Corrections’ 35 locations have been infected with the virus. That’s more than a third of the prison system’s total inmate population, according to IDOC figures. More than 50 inmates have died.

Almost 3,800 IDOC staff have been infected since the outset of the pandemic, according to the state’s most recent figures available.

It could be weeks before vaccine doses are ready to be put into the arms of corrections officers and inmates. However, no clear plan of prioritizing inoculations for prison staff and inmates has been made.

“IDOC is working with IDPH to finalize details of its COVID-19 vaccination plan,” IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said. “The plan will be made public when it is complete.”

County jails aren’t much better prepared.

Officials at the Cook County sheriff’s office, which operates the county jail, said vaccinations of staff have begun. But they haven’t received word from the county health department about plans to inoculate detainees, although a spokesman noted Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart “supports vaccination of detainees.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she too supports vaccinating jail detainees because “they’re living in a congregate setting.”

As of Monday, 167 Cook County jail detainees are positive for the virus, officials said. That includes four detainees who are hospitalized from the infection. Since the outbreak began, nine detainees have died and 1,147 have been infected. Five sheriff’s employees – four corrections officers and one deputy – died after contracting the virus, according to Dart’s website.

Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain said his office plans to make the jail’s vaccination plan available as soon as possible, and the priority for staff is corrections officers because of the close quarters in which they work. He is hopeful the vaccine supply will be enough to inoculate staff and detainees simultaneously.

Sgt. Chris Covelli, a spokesman for Lake County Sheriff John Idleburg, said about 50 inmates have expressed interest in receiving the vaccination, which represents about 10% of the jail’s population. However, there are concerns about providing one dose of the two-dose regimen to an inmate who might be released before he is due to receive the second dose.

“That’s another obstacle we are working through because most of our jail population is pretrial detainees,” Covelli said. “Some of that 10% could be released in a month.”

Officials at the health departments and sheriffs’ offices in both DuPage and McHenry County said they are working together on inoculation plans, and any prioritization would be dependent on the number of the vaccine doses allocated.

The McHenry County jail also houses federal detainees for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. They are working with federal authorities regarding vaccination plans for those detainees as well, officials said.