Eye On Illinois: State can’t continue to force counties to hold its prisoners

Not so fast, DOC.

On April 3, I shared with optimism the Illinois Department of Corrections’ notice it could get by with a 10% cut in fiscal 2022. Capitol News Illinois reported Director Rob Jeffreys credited “evidence-based programming” and other reforms effective in both streamlining operations and reducing recidivism. The state’s prison population is down 20%, reaching its lowest level since 1991.

There’s a flip side to that coin, which Shaw Local News Network’s Tom Collins detailed in a Monday report: The La Salle County Jail is holding about 20 inmates who have been sentenced to state prison simply because the DOC won’t take them.

“This is getting to be a problem as inmates become restless and start to have behavior issues knowing they are waiting to go to DOC,” said Jail Superintendent Jason Edgcomb. “Also, several of the inmates have severe medical issues costing the county a lot of money to continue to care for them.”

Although COVID-19 mitigations threw everything off balance a year ago, the state resumed transfers from county jails on Aug. 3. DOC Public Information Officer Lindsey Hess told Shaw “intakes are scheduled based on space availability, quarantine requirements and COVID-19 test results” resulting in “6,251 new admissions and 877 turnarounds” since the resumption.

In pre-pandemic times, Edgcomb said, La Salle averaged one inmate transfer per week. That figure varies by county, but in most jurisdictions delays of several months are simply unsustainable. He sees incongruity in prisons relaxing COVID prohibitions on allowing visitors — Sheridan and Pontiac will reopen April 26 — while the state wields the pandemic as a means for throttling admissions.

“Maintaining family connection is a vital component of an incarcerated person’s mental and emotional well-being,” IDOC acting Director Rob Jeffreys said in recent release. “Because of the aggressive measures the department has taken to mitigate COVID-19 within our facilities, IDOC is one of the few correctional systems in the nation now reopening to visitors.”

Jeffreys is completely right about the value of family connections, but his optimism about the system’s reopening is understandably difficult to embrace while Illinois still has so many people in its care who aren’t in their proper places.

County jail is generally for pretrial detention. State prison is for convicted criminals. Barrels of ink could be spilled about ways to improve conditions of both types of facilities, for inmates and employees alike, but in the present condition lawmakers shouldn’t tolerate this type of unauthorized resource shifting, especially when it enables agency officials to paint rosy pictures instead of the full story.

Releasing inmates isn’t an option, so the state has to find way to properly house and pay for those in its custody. Saving state money at counties’ expense is unacceptable.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.