Sheriff Mike Downey

Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey – one of the sheriffs involved in a lawsuit against the state regarding transfers from county jails to state prisons – is pictured in a file photo at the Illinois Statehouse in February.

KANKAKEE — Three weeks ago, Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey discussed ongoing issues his department has had with the Illinois Department of Corrections not taking in prisoners to begin their sentences. Now, the IDOC has responded, saying much is to be blamed on COVID-19 and that costs will be reimbursed.

At the recent criminal justice committee meeting, Downey told Kankakee County Board members there were 33 inmates awaiting transfer to state prison.

It was a similar refrain as Downey has kept board members updated on the situation at every committee meeting in the past year.

In response to Daily Journal inquiries, IDOC public information officer Lindsey Hess said the state took in 10 inmates from Kankakee County on April 16. Since Aug. 3, 2020, Hess said, the state has accepted a total of 93 intakes from Kankakee County.

“The Illinois Department of Corrections is committed to safely admitting as many men and women from the counties as possible,” Hess said. “Intakes are scheduled based on space availability, quarantine requirements and COVID-19 test results. We have been accepting transfers from county jails since Aug. 3, 2020, and have processed 6,366 new admissions and 885 turnarounds to date.”

Furthermore, she said, “Our transfer coordinator’s office is in constant communication with all county sheriffs, which includes providing updates at least once per week.”

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, agreed that the pandemic has slowed down intakes to state prison facilities.

“It is certainly the case we’ve known for this year, due to COVID, it is terribly difficult to transfer,” he said. “It is complicated. You are dealing with corrections officers, other employees and inmates being in confined conditions."

From March 2020 to August 2020, he said, no new inmates were being processed into DOC intake centers. Also, one of the DOC intake centers was shut down due to COVID.

“It caused a bottleneck,” Yohnka said. “In COVID, it could happen that some [inmates] are staying longer [in local facilities].”

Downey said he is not looking for IDOC to take transfers every week like was the case before the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020.

“I would just like to know if we could have a process in place,” Downey said, adding that it’s problem that is occurring in facilities throughout the state.

A bigger problem

And while the slowdown in transfers to state prisons is causing a financial problem for the county, Downey saved his strongest words for the matter of inmates who have served more than their judge-ordered time.

“That is a blatant violation of their civil rights,” Downey said as he told the committee on April 14 that five inmates awaiting transfer to IDOC had served their prison sentence but were still awaiting transfer and release.

Yohnka agreed with that assessment.

“People being held beyond their service date is a problem,” he said.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, things are not as usual, he said.

As for the slowdown’s cost to the county, Downey said using the $90 per diem the county receives for housing federal prisoners, the cost of housing state inmates between Aug. 1, 2020, and March 3 was $648,000.

Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe said that $600,000 could fund a mental health court program for a decade.

“We need IDOC to do their job,” Rowe said. “Every dollar we have to spend toward housing IDOC prisoners is a dollar we could put back into rehabilitation programs.”

Lindsey Hess said IDOC will be reimbursing, citing the Illinois Sheriff’s Association’s lawsuit against Gov. JB Pritzker and the IDOC.

“With the dismissal of [the court case] on April 8, IDOC intends on reimbursing counties for expenses incurred July 1, 2020, and after related to housing individuals who were sentenced to our custody,” she said.

Jeff Bonty is a reporter for The Daily Journal. He can be reached at jbonty@daily-journal.com and 815-937-3366.

Reporter

Jeff Bonty has worked for The Daily Journal since September 1986, starting in the sports department before moving to news reporting in 2002. He's a native of Indiana and graduate of Purdue University. His email is jbonty@daily-journal.com.