Concerns over COVID-19 lead to cuts in county jail population

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Darrell Hoemann/The News-Gazette

One of the pods. Photos at the Champaign County satellite jail jail in east Urbana on Monday, March 11, 2013. File photo.

Community advocates urged jail officials in the past month to decrease the number of inmates in the Champaign County jail, as concern over the danger of the coronavirus on the jail population increases. 

At the same time, the county sheriff and state attorneys were working to reduce the number of inmates.

On March 21, the jail population had been reduced to 151 people from a daily average of 185 at the county’s two jail sites, according to daily jail reports compared with 2019 statistics on the jail population. 

Despite sharp spikes in population, such as a population of 173 on March 24, the number has stayed below the 2019 daily average since safety precautions began earlier this month. As of March 27, the number had fallen back to 157 people — with 11 serving prison sentences, 128 awaiting trial and the rest on Electronic Home Detention. 

The initial decrease was accomplished by working with the state’s attorney’s office and judges to release those in custody without posing safety risks, Sheriff Dustin Heuerman said. 

Heuerman said officials have been working to reduce the jail population by giving orders to appear in court in lieu of physical arrests. Heuerman said they are taking safety precautions in the jails:

“We have taken steps to encourage officers to not bring in inmates if they don’t need to and have also been working with the State’s Attorney’s office to identify inmates who don’t pose a safety risk who can be released from jail,” he wrote in an email to CU-CitizenAccess.org. 

“We have also been working with the judiciary to identify any inmate serving a sentence in custody that might be able to serve their sentence outside of jail,” he wrote.

Build Programs Not Jails (BPNJ) members have urged the jail to reduce the population during this time. They wrote emails and made calls to the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office, the state’s attorney, and other officials to spread the message. 

A screenshot of the public Build Programs Not Jails Facebook group on March 24, 2020.
Dottie Vura-Weis posts about a decrease in the jail population after advocates voiced their support for lowering the population during COVID-19 precautions.

Group member Dottie Vura-Weis is an active poster who encourages others to take action and make appearances at board and facilities meetings. In the group’s public Facebook group, Vura-Weis shares dates and meeting times for city council and county board meetings, as well as her own personal research focused on the justice system. In her Letter to the Editor in the News-Gazette, she encouraged county leaders to keep jail populations low, an argument that echoes in her current posts about COVID-19. 

“We can do this — some of it has started,” she wrote in her letter. 

The average amount of time in custody in 2019 was 15 days. The Champaign County jail, which splits its intakes between the smaller downtown jail and the satellite jail, both in Urbana, took in 5,505 people in 2019.

Over the past few days, the daily jail log showed bookings for crimes including domestic battery, deceptive practices, assault, and resisting or obstructing a peace officer. 

Heuerman said that if a person is arrested and brought to the jail, he or she is screened for signs/symptoms of COVID-19. 

“New inmates are isolated for 14 days to help ensure nothing is spread to the other inmates if they do have the virus but are not showing signs/symptoms,” Heuerman wrote.” As always, though, many of our inmates are booked and released within an hour or two.”

A cell was made available to quarantine a person in custody showing any signs or symptoms of COVID-19, but there have not been any inmates showing signs so far, Heuerman wrote. COVID-19 symptoms can take up to 14 days to appear after exposure to the virus, according to the CDC. 

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office contract with its medical provider, Correct Care Solutions, was set to expire at the end of this month. Heuerman said in an email the contract was extended until March 2021. 

A previous report by CU-CitizenAccess on health care in the jails found that despite alleged wrongful death cases against Champaign County for the deaths of Toya Frazier, Veronica Horstead, and Paul Clifton, the county jail still has dangerous flaws in its medical care. Two jail studies criticized the facilities, including the ‘inadequate conditions’ those in need of medical care are exposed to at the facilities. The medical provider for the jail, Correct Care Solutions, a national company, has been sued at least 140 times for inadequate care at facilities across the country.

The calls for a reduction in jail population came after worries about a national jail epidemic due to COVID-19 have grown throughout the U.S. The calls escalated in importance after the Cook County Sheriff’s Department declared that decreasing the jail population is a ‘high-priority’

Electronic Home Detention monitors are being used for at least 18 people who aren’t in custody at the jail, but are included in the jail population count. The sheriff’s office website says it, “…monitors an average of 31 Electronic Home Detention (EHD) inmates daily,” but the jails do not appear to be using the extra monitors at this time. 

The Champaign County Jail has been under scrutiny after plans were revealed for an estimated $47 million to 52 million expansion of the satellite jail on Lierman Avenue in Urbana, but the Champaign County Board has yet to set a vote for a tax increase to fund it. In expanding the satellite jail, the downtown jail would be closed for good under current plans. Jail discussions are expected to go into 2021 as the project develops.

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