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How Gov. Pritzker could slow the spread of COVID-19 at Cook County Jail

The governor should lift an executive order that prevents 120 convicted detainees at the jail from being transferred to state prisons.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker
Gov. J.B. Pritzker should relax an executive order that prohibits convicted inmates from being transferred from county jails to state prisons.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

As efforts continue to slow the spread of COVID-19 at Cook County Jail by reducing the inmate population, Gov. J.B. Pritzker could help the effort with the stroke of a pen.

Pritzker should lift an executive order that now prevents 120 convicted detainees at the jail from being transferred to state prisons. The governor announced last week he was extending the executive order through the month of May, along with other statewide stay-at-home measures imposed in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Transferring the 120 inmates would provide some relief to Cook County Jail as it fights a pitch battle against a virus that has infected 800 detainees and guards. One corrections officer and six detainees have died from the coronavirus so far.

Meanwhile, a team that includes Cook County prosecutors, public defenders, representatives from the chief judge’s office and jail officials have reduced the number of jail detainees from 5,600 at the start of the pandemic to just under 4,000 now. Action by the governor now would further that difficult but necessary reduction in the jail’s population.

‘Sensible decision’ to halt transfers

Preventing transfers from county jails to the state’s prison system made good sense when the measure was enacted March 26. Bringing in new inmates — each a potential coronavirus carrier — just as prison officials were learning how to get a handle on the virus and take action against it could have further endangered the lives and health of both inmates and corrections officers.

“Governor Pritzker’s sensible decision ... is critical to protect the health and well-being of those detained in Illinois prisons,” a group of prisoners’ rights advocates, including the Illinois ACLU and the Uptown People’s Law Center, said at the time. “This temporary measure permits IDOC to protect its present population, and be assured of sufficient supplies and tests to protect staff, the prisoners and the communities which house the prisoners.”

But the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association says the order has only made the fight against the coronavirus that much harder at county jails.

“In terms of being able to reduce the count they have in their facilities, not every jail has had that opportunity,” the association’s executive director Jim Kaitschuk said at the time Pritzker first ordered the freeze on transfers. “And there are some that are full today, and this is just going to make the problems that they have in their jails that much worse.”

Transfers should resume

Since that time, state prison officials have made headway in improving sanitation, screening and treatment. And in a major move to reduce the spread of infection and improve social distancing behind prison walls, the Illinois Department of Corrections has freed 4,000 inmates since March, mainly through sentence commutations and early releases.

We fully appreciate that the state Department of Corrections needed that time to size up the virus and take action. COVID-19 has struck hard at Cook County Jail, but it also is spreading like wildfire at state prisons — and apparently federal prisons — across the country.

Almost 80 percent of the inmates at Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institution have tested positive for the coronavirus. And 70% of the 2,700 federal prison system inmates tested for the virus so far — a fraction of the 150,000 inmates who should be tested — have been found to have the bug.

In Illinois, only 155 of the state’s 39,000 inmates have contracted the virus so far, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. But that’s a number that’s bound to rise as testing continues.

Given its newly freed-up prison space, the state Department of Corrections should resume its duty of accepting prisoners from Cook and other county jails.

Pritzker needs only to give the word.

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