COVID-19: Coming to a Jail Near You

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This article was first published in The Progressive on January 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

Wayne Colson, Sr. recalls he felt “helpless” with his son sitting in jail as news of the COVID-19 pandemic was breaking. A loyal father, Colson had attended visitation every Sunday to see his son. “I didn’t want him to feel like nobody was there, I was never too busy to show him love.” Visitations at the jail were cancelled when COVID hit. Worried his son would catch this deadly, invisible disease, he felt he was in a “whirlwind.”

Colson and his son live in Champaign-Urbana. Many Black youth, like Colson’s son, have little prospect of attending the state’s flagship campus, the University of Illinois, and get funneled into the criminal legal system.

Jails have become petri dishes for COVID-19. The majority of people in jail have not been convicted of a crime, yet they are being exposed to COVID. Those who cycle in and out of jails are taking COVID back into their homes, infecting Black, brown, and poor white communities.

In communities like Champaign-Urbana, and across Illinois, people are organizing against mass incarceration in their hometowns. This article is a case study of jails in three communities in Illinois: Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, and Peoria. These were the only places in downstate Illinois that voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential elections. They provide examples of struggles that must be waged all over the country if mass incarceration is to be reversed.

There are almost 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, the majority in state and federal prisons where people serve sentences of a year or longer, and turnover is slow. Yet in county jails where people serve short stints, there are more than 10 million admittances every year, making them even more important for containing the spread of COVID. President Joe Biden’s plan for COVID includes no mention of jails and prisons. Even in the face of a global pandemic, the United States remains deeply wedded to mass incarceration.

Early in the pandemic, court officials in Champaign County took measures to lower the jail population from around 180 people to about 140. I spoke to Captain Karee Voges, who oversees the jail and described the steps taken to contain COVID. When an arrestee comes into the jail, they are screened and placed in quarantine for 14 days, then they are put into the general population.

To members of the Champaign County Bailout Coalition (CCBC), formed two years ago, these efforts did not go far enough. In April, CCBC sent a letter demanding local officials “drastically” reduce the jail population.

In late May, following the police killing of George Floyd, protesters gathered at the local shopping mall in Champaign, where some broke windows and took items from stores. Police arrested and jailed 26 of them. Only ten could afford bail. The Bailout Coalition paid approximately $46,000 in bonds to release the remaining 16 protesters.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and jails are recognized hotspots for coronavirus,” Chibundo Egwuatu said in a CCBC press release. “Nothing is gained by locking people up for taking action against police violence.”

Activists were correct in recognizing the threat. According to public records, just days earlier, on May 27, the first person at the jail tested positive for COVID-19. They were in a holding cell with four other people who also tested positive. Two of them were released before tests came back, returning home to expose their families and friends.

I spoke with one of those arrested, Shantee Mason-Tanzie, who said she was put in a holding cell with twelve other women. “If there was somebody who had COVID,” she said, “we all would have got it.”

Currently, the jail population has returned to pre-COVID levels. “If I could have it my way,” Voges told me, “I wish we had less people being arrested.”

In nearby McLean County, 50 miles to the west, the jail is in Bloomington-Normal, another college town, which is home to Illinois State University. The jail is run by Sheriff Jon Sandage, a Trump supporter. Early on, Sheriff Sandage implemented a strict 23-hour lockdown policy, but still could not keep COVID out of the jail.

In late July, Sheriff Sandage announced that a man who had been waiting for several months to be transferred to the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) had tested positive for COVID. He placed blame on Democratic Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker for halting all prison intakes.

“There is just a whole lot of things that the governor I don’t think took into consideration when he forced this down the throats of local sheriffs,” Sandage told one media outlet. The sheriff failed to return calls for an interview.

Zachary Gittrich is part of a solidarity research group and runs his own website, where he publishes information about the jail. In March, the jail population dropped to 130 people, but it’s now back up to around 220. Approximately 55 percent of those in jail are Black. Nearly 90 percent have not been convicted.

Gittrich faulted the sheriff for exposing the jail population to the virus. It was not the man awaiting transfer to IDOC, he pointed out, but jail staff who brought COVID into the jail. The sheriff’s lockdown was not the solution, Gittrich said: “I think the better method is to decarcerate.”

Peoria is another 40 miles west on Highway 74, a working-class city built on the banks of the Illinois River. Many factories and warehouses along the river now sit empty. In 2016, Peoria was ranked the worst place in the United States to live for Black people.

Chama St. Louis has been a community organizer for 17 years and is currently running for mayor of Peoria. She explained how Peoria is sharply segregated, with the majority of the 28,000 African Americans living on the south side of the city.

Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell is a Republican, but a reformer who won endorsement from St. Louis last election cycle. COVID reached the Peoria County jail in mid-July, the sheriff announced. After several rounds of mass testing, the outbreak was under control, but only after a total of 38 cases of people incarcerated were found.

St. Louis has received calls from families concerned with their loved ones in the jail. and been able to reach out to the sheriff, who has reassured he is doing everything to keep people safe. While Sheriff Asbell set a good example, she said, “Over all, police need to be reformed and defunded.”

Abandoning Reforms

Despite the dangers of a global pandemic, communities have still been unable to disinvest from jail as a solution to social problems. As Prison Policy Initiative has found, “early reforms instituted to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned.” A new report concluded that in non-metro counties with large jail populations, the spread of COVID-19 has been “most dramatic.”

Matthew McLoughlin, Director of Programs for the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has worked in coordination with several of the above local movements, told me, “County officials know how to prevent COVID deaths in jails, the question is whether or not they want to.”

Brian Dolinar, Ph.D. is an independent journalist living in Urbana, Illinois. He works on issues of mass incarceration and immigration. His articles have appeared at In These Times, Truthout, Counterpunch, and Prison Legal News.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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