Cook County sheriff and state prisons at odds over inmate transfers during the pandemic
Stuck in the sheriff’s custody for more than 2 weeks after her 1-year sentence ended, Aqueelah Ali’s situation highlights tensions between the sheriff’s office and Illinois Department of Corrections.
Aqueelah Ali should have been freed right away. She’d served more time in the custody of the Cook County sheriff than her one-year sentence for driving drunk on a revoked license.
In the past, someone in her situation would immediately go through a one-day “turnaround. She’d be taken to a prison, fingerprinted, photographed and released by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Instead, she remained in the Cook County sheriff’s electronic-monitoring program, confined to home for more than two weeks.
Tuesday, the sheriff’s office sent the state prison system a stinging letter about her circumstances. On Friday, Ali finally was transferred and processed out.
Brad Curry, chief of staff for Sheriff Tom Dart, said Illinois prison officials have put up roadblocks to transfers of people from county jails to the prison system. In addition to seven turnaround inmates waiting to be processed by the state, 431 inmates are in the sheriff’s custody who should be in prison to start their sentences or because they violated parole, according to Curry.
That the state prison system hasn’t accepted them “would be like us telling the Chicago police, ‘Sorry, guys, you can’t send anybody here right now,’ ” Curry said.
Prison officials say they’re limiting transfers to keep COVID-19 from spreading.
Ali was arrested Aug. 4, 2019, sentenced Aug. 17, 2020, and was on electronic monitoring since her arrest. Her time on electronic monitoring counted toward her one-year sentence.
“My sentence is over — let me go,” Ali said in an interview Wednesday, before her release. “They’ve stopped me from my everyday life.”
She said she’s been living in Chicago while on electronic monitoring and planned to return home to Michigan City, Indiana, where her 23-year-old daughter has been caring for Ali’s two younger sons and daughters.
Lindsey Hess, a state corrections spokeswoman, said, “Although the Illinois Department of Corrections is in frequent contact with the Cook County sheriff’s office, we were never informed about the woman identified in the letter. Had we been aware of her case, we would have made arrangements to ensure she did not remain incarcerated.
“The department sends daily emails to the sheriffs with updates on transfers. These emails state, ‘If you currently have offenders who have served their IDOC time and are ready for release, you can still schedule to bring them to your designated [reception center]. We will ensure they are processed and released the same day.’ ”
She said 67 turnarounds have been processed statewide since Aug. 6.
Earlier this year, prison employees were being sent into the Cook County Jail to process turnarounds, but the Department of Corrections stopped doing that, Curry said.
Now, jail employees must take one turnaround inmate at a time by car to a state prison facility to process them for release, according to Curry, who said that’s time-consuming and labor-intensive.
Hess said a court ruling prompted that change. In early August, a downstate judge ordered the state to accept the transfer “of all offenders as required by the Illinois Unified Code of Corrections.” The order was the result of a lawsuit sheriffs filed against Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the head of the Department of Corrections.
The order meant prison employees who’d been processing turnarounds at the Cook County Jail were needed to help process the huge influx of inmates entering Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Hess said.
On Aug. 21, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed that order, saying the state prison system has sole discretion over “the scheduling of the arrival of individuals from Illinois county jails and the intake process to ensure the health and safety of the transferring individuals.”
Curry said each jail detainee who belongs in state prison is a burden on his staff.
“We have single-celled the entire jail and opened areas that were closed. I have 265 posts per shift more than I had before COVID,” said Curry, who previously was the Department of Corrections public safety chief.
Some sheriffs say their jails have become overcrowded because they hold so many people who belong in state prison, though the Cook County Jail is about half full.
Sheriffs also say they’re having to use their county budgets to house state prisoners.
In March, about 20 organizations, including law firms and prison-reform advocates, wrote to the Illinois Supreme Court, seeking an end to turnarounds.
“People sentenced to time-served should be released directly from the county jail,” the letter said. “Not only are turnarounds a waste of strained justice-system resources, but they create a completely unnecessary risk of infection.”
Curry said the simplest solution for speeding up turnarounds would be for the state to again send employees to the Cook County Jail to process them. Hess said the corrections department is working on a way to process turnarounds safely.