(The Center Square) – Visits to Illinois’ prisons are being phased in as staff and inmates get vaccinated. But, there are concerns being raised about how much uptake there is for the COVID-19 vaccine among staff.
There’s also a push from county sheriffs to have the state transfer convicted inmates to state prisons, instead of being housed at county jails.
Prisons went on lockdown for most of COVID-19. But, with vaccines now available, Illinois Department of Corrections Director Rob Jefferys told lawmakers last week, there is uptake.
“And so far 69% of our incarcerated population and 36% of our staff have been vaccinated,” Jefferys said. “Because we instituted a comprehensive vaccination education plan, we anticipate that this uptake in numbers will be increasing over time.”
State Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, said there are concerns of possible lawsuits if the state’s prison staff aren’t getting vaccinated. She said that should be a requirement.
“That’s something we can easily do, I’d be happy to legislate it for you,” Mayfield said. “We want to make sure we don’t get another pandemic.”
Prison watchdog group The John Howard Association also raised concerns about reports of staff at prisons in some rural areas not abiding by masking requirements.
Another issue is sheriffs across the state looking for a quicker transitioning of state inmates from county jails to state prisons.
Early in the pandemic, when the governor ordered a halt to prison transfers, sheriffs sued the state, but the case was dismissed.
IDOC Chief of Operations John Eilers said since then, they’ve been working as fast as they can with the limitations put in place, like only one inmate per cell and other COVID-19 protocols for inmate transfers.
“It is a struggle and we admit that, but I promise we are filling beds as soon as they become open and we just work that schedule and we know how many offenders are in each jail,” Eilers said.
State Rep. Dan Swanson, R-Woodhull, said he still hears from sheriffs in his district and beyond that say the system is broken. He said things need to move faster, especially with one-day testing turnaround.
“I think we could relieve the inmates in our county jails quite quickly because they’re starting their courts and putting more inmates in their prisons,” Swanson said.
IDOC officials said they continue to work with sheriffs across the state, including discussing reimbursement for costs of counties holding state inmates.
Lawmakers are also looking for more information about the numbers of inmates on conditional release per facility, and by race, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations per facility, the number of positive cases per facilities and the number of deaths per facility.