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Public health should come first in setting prison policy

The transfer protocols established jointly by Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Corections are designed to protect the safety of the many thousands of people who live and work in Illinois prisons.

This Oct. 19, 2011 photo shows inmates exiting building No. 19 at the Vienna Correctional Center in Vienna.
AP Photo/The Southern, Steve Jahnke

In response to the Sept. 8 Chicago Sun Times editorial, the John Howard Association, an independent prison watch dog organization, believes the focus of where people who are in county jails and have been sentenced to state custody are housed should be on the health of all impacted people, not on the politics that exist between layers of government in Illinois.

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JHA urges local and state leaders to put public health first, and consider that:

1. To accept new people into Illinois Department of Corrections custody and protect the population of people who are incarcerated and who work inside the prisons, testing and quarantine protocols were created in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

2. The transfer protocols established jointly by IDPH and IDOC are designed to protect the safety of the many thousands of people in Illinois prisons. If local officials cannot comply with these protocols due to lack of resources or staff, this is an issue that should be addressed and remedied at both the local and state levels. Reducing exposure to the virus for the greatest number of people requires increased testing and use of quarantine before people are sent to IDOC custody.

3. The IDOC Northern Reception and Classification Center, which is the facility the majority of people entering IDOC custody enter the system through, is not designed to have people stay for more than a few weeks. Most of these people are subjected to conditions analogous to disciplinary segregation, although they have not violated any IDOC rule. Bringing more people into this facility without use of rigorous testing and quarantine measures will increase the prevalence of the virus at NRC and make terrible living conditions and challenging work conditions even worse.

4. Information on county detention facility overcrowding is not readily available to the public (according to the Jail and Detention Standards Unit of IDOC, charged with inspecting Illinois county detention centers and jails, population information is to be sent to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority on an annual basis, the last published information includes population data from 2016. Available information indicates that jail overcrowding is not an issue in most counties. Where jails are overcrowded or lack the capacity to properly isolate or quarantine people, collaboration and assistance should be provided by IDOC to make sure that people are housed and admitted using public health protocols to achieve the safest possible outcomes.

5. While sheriffs may not be able to release people in their custody who have been sentenced to IDOC, sheriffs should work with local law enforcement and system actors to make sure that secure detention is used only when truly needed, in the case of a serious risk to public safety or flight.

6. Bringing people who have completed their prison sentences into an IDOC facility for processing is a waste of resources that has unfortunately been the norm for many years. This must stop. It was our understanding that IDOC had begun sending staff to county jails to reduce the cost of this process by not transferring people solely for this purpose. If this is not happening, it should be.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director, John Howard Association

Zero integrity

I cannot believe the gall of Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr. Since when is the Department of Justice Trump’s personal legal staff? And why should the citizens of the United States be on the hook for the cost of Trump’s misdeeds?

There is zero integrity left in Trump’s cabinet and the Republican Party. Anyone who still supports this man has no conscience.

Regina Gomory, Crystal Lake