Tom Dart says he’s spent $38 million during the pandemic on inmates who should have been in state prisons

The Cook County sheriff has told the head of the Illinois Department of Corrections he wants to begin sending hundreds of inmates from the county jail to the state prison system.

SHARE Tom Dart says he’s spent $38 million during the pandemic on inmates who should have been in state prisons
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says the state is moving too slowly to take its inmates off his hands.

Brian Rich / Sun-Times file

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is demanding the state prison system take hundreds of inmates off his hands.

Dart says they’ve cost him more than $38 million — though some of that has been covered by the federal government — to house the inmates during the coronavirus pandemic, and that’s forced him to keep open a large cell building that he otherwise would have mothballed.

People convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison have remained in the Cook County Jail near 26th and California instead of being transferred to the Illinois Department of Corrections because the state was trying to keep COVID-19 from spreading in its prisons, Dart said.

Last August, a downstate judge had 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 that Illinois sheriffs filed against Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the head of the Department of Corrections.

But 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.”

Dart said the state has been accepting too few inmates at a time.

Last September, the sheriff’s office said 431 inmates in the County Jail should have been in state prisons to start their sentences or because they violated parole.

In the past few days, 761 people were awaiting transfer from the County Jail to state prisons, about 15% of the jail population, Dart said.

In a letter Wednesday to acting state corrections director Rob Jeffreys, Dart proposed sending 600 inmates to the Illinois Department of Corrections in three phases between mid-June and early July. Dart noted that prison officials recently said they’ve achieved a 69% vaccination rate for inmates. He said those who are transferred from the County Jail to state prison are quarantined and tested for the coronavirus before they’re sent.

In his letter, Dart wrote: “IDOC’s failure to accept its inmates has cost Cook County approximately $38,835,120.00. This estimate does nothing to account for the still-undetermined impact housing thousands of persons for IDOC had on the sheriff’s office, CCDOC and its frontline staff over the last 12 months. Calculating the emotional and intangible impact to our workforce and persons in Cook County custody will take time.”

He said correctional officers have been working double shifts during the pandemic to keep up.

On Friday, Dart acknowledged that federal CARES Act coronavirus relief money has covered some of the $38 million. He said he expects the county president’s office and the state to negotiate repayment for the rest.

“We do want to be reimbursed,” he said.

Dart said the state corrections system has “plenty of room” for the state prisoners now held at the Cook County Jail. He said his jail population has increased during the pandemic while the corrections system’s has fallen.

Lindsey Hess, a state corrections spokeswoman, said her agency is trying to avoid spreading COVID-19 in the prison system and “continues to follow the science. With increasing vaccinations and decreasing positivity rates, we are monitoring the situation with an eye for keeping those who live and work in our facilities safe. IDOC is negotiating with the counties on a fair reimbursement rate.”

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