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Dart, other county sheriffs demand state prisons start accepting inmates again

More than 350 inmates at Cook County Jail should be transferred to the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, the sheriff’s office says.

Sheriff Tom Dart
The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, which Tom Dart is a member of, filed a motion Thursday asking a circuit court judge to approve a preliminary injunction that would order the state to accept inmates who are housed in county jails, but should be in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Sun-Times file

With little room to spare at Cook County Jail, Sheriff Tom Dart is seeking a court order to compel the state to take custody of inmates who had been housed at the jail since the coronavirus outbreak.

The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, which Dart is a member of, filed the motion last week in downstate Logan County asking a circuit court judge to approve a preliminary injunction that would order the state to accept inmates who are housed in county jails but should be in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

These inmates — unlike detainees at the jail who are awaiting trial — have been convicted and sentenced.

Some of these inmates served their sentences but need to be transferred to IDOC custody before their release.

Since the outbreak, IDOC officials told sheriffs they needed time to prepare new intake procedures at state facilities to contain the virus. They’ve continued to decline to accept transfers from county jail for months.

As of Friday, there were more than 350 inmates housed at the Cook County Jail who should be in the custody of the IDOC, according to the sheriff’s office.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and IDOC “have refused to take individuals ordered into state custody, though required by law to do so, leaving Illinois sheriffs with the burden of caring for these individuals in the midst of a global pandemic that has stretched thin the financial and human resources of nearly every law enforcement agency,” Dart spokesman Matthew Walberg said.

Concerns voiced by Dart’s office and other sheriffs have been “met with silence” from state officials, Walberg added.

An IDOC spokesman said the agency “remains focused on responding, mitigating and controlling COVID-19 to protect those who live and work in our facilities” but declined to comment on the suit. Officials for Pritzker were not immediately available for comment.

The Sheriffs’ Association sued Pritzker and IDOC in May over a March 26 order that suspended all admissions to IDOC facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from local to state facilities.

That left local sheriffs bearing “the burden of protecting their detainees and county-sentenced inmates from the threat of the virus, but also those who rightfully should be in the custody of IDOC at a time when space and inmate population are critical components to battling the spread of the virus,” Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk said.

Kaitschuk said that since the governor’s order went into effect, IDOC officials have repeatedly denied requests from sheriff’s offices to take the prisoners and accused Pritzker and corrections officials of deciding “to wall themselves off rather than work with their fellow law enforcement partners to address the issue.”

Dart and other sheriffs, in their motion, claimed the failure of IDOC officials to accept inmates was causing county jails “dangerously nearing, reaching, or exceeding capacity.”

Kaitschuk said the situation at county jails has only grown more dire since the lawsuit was filed.

“It’s a tremendous burden to place on the local authorities,” he said.