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COVID-19 concerns abound at McHenry County Jail

Jail workers weigh in on COVID-19 action; sheriff’s office says precautions in place

Officials at the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock said they have taken precautions to keep the COVID-19 virus out of the jail.

But a couple of corrections officers who spoke to the Northwest Herald on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs said they are concerned that not enough is being done to prevent the virus from spreading at the jail.

The officers said it is only a matter of time until a COVID-19 case hits the jail.

Among other concerns, the officers said not enough sanitation is going on inside the jail, there is little screening of new inmates who come in, and social distancing guidelines are not being followed.

As posted on its website, the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office closed the jail’s front lobby for 30 days beginning March 18. In addition, the jail is offering one free weekly remote video visitation to detainees’ friends and family.

In a memo sent to jail employees and obtained by the Northwest Herald, Dan Sitkie, chief of corrections at the McHenry County Jail, wrote that the department did not have anyone in the jail with coronavirus. Therefore, he said, the jail would “remain status quo” in its operations.

This, some corrections officers said, illustrates the issue: The jail is being reactive instead of proactive in its approach to the virus.

Although the corrections officers acknowledged the fact that on-site video visitation and other programs were shut down, one said officials “didn’t do anything inside the jail to protect us or the inmates or the detainees, or anyone that comes and goes.”

“As far as I know, there are no [precautions the jail is taking] other than you taking it upon yourself to clean,” the corrections officer said, adding that they do have Clorox disinfectant wipes at their workstations.

Sitkie did not respond to multiple phone messages seeking comment. In his memo, he wrote that everyone who works in corrections – whether they are an officer, sergeant, lieutenant or chief – is considered “essential” by the state.

“Having a ‘title’ associated with your rank is all irrelevant when it comes to who will be coming into work, whether or not we have COVID-19 in the facility, as the answer is everyone who works here will be,” the memo stated. “You all took an oath like I did, along with everyone else that works here, and you are not the only ones that that pertains to.”

McHenry County Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Creighton, a spokesman for the office, said in an email that precautions inside the facility include the cleaning of all surfaces more often than normal.

“The number of subjects entering and leaving the jail is being reduced by the use of video court for both federal and local bond hearings and court appearances, as well as by the use of notice to appear citations for certain violations approved by the state attorney’s office,” Creighton said.

Personal protection equipment has been given to the officers working in the jail, he said, and additional PPE has been requested from various sources, including private vendors. In addition, Creighton said, procedures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health department for combating the virus have been distributed and posted.

As of Thursday, there were 443 detainees in the jail, 161 of whom were there in connection with local charges, and 282 of whom were federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, Creighton said.

Through its agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service, McHenry County earns $95 a day for each federal detainee housed at the jail.

One corrections officer said the jail continues to receive more detainees on a daily basis.

“If you came here and you saw this, you would not believe it,” the corrections officer said. “[Inmates] are sitting right on top of each other. ... I’m not joking. ... There’s no enforcement.”

In the day room, where inmates have their meals, talk and hang out, everybody sits at the same table, officers said.

“They’re little tables, but just four or five per table, and you’re all in a big group out there,” a corrections officer said.

In some divisions, officers are in sections with more than 60 inmates, one officer said.

“They’re using the same handrails and the same doors, they’re using the same tables, same games, same everything. Imagine that this spread, how bad it can be,” the corrections officer said.

Social distancing is being practiced as much as possible in the jail, but, as in any confined area, unique challenges exist, Creighton said. These challenges include the fact that the detainees’ movement and space is restricted.

“We have posters put in place that have guidelines for maintaining good hygiene and washing their hands,” Creighton said in an email. “We have social activity reminders posted reminding them to distance themselves from each other. We have posted information on our kiosk system with information, as well, for them to read and follow. “

Creighton said the jail has a responsibility to remain in operation in the safest manner possible.

“To our knowledge, overcrowding is not occurring,” he said.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office recently reported a total of 167 detainees in custody who tested for COVID-19, 38 of whom have tested positive, six of whom have tested negative and 123 of whom have pending test results.

According to statistics posted on the Cook County Sheriff’s Office’s website, nine Cook County Sheriff’s Office employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Cermak staff are closely monitoring the detainees on the living units where these individuals were housed and will test any detainees who are symptomatic,” the Cook County Sheriff’s Office said on its website.

It’s outbreaks like these in other facilities that have McHenry County Jail employees concerned.

However, Creighton said that although any type of contagious disease is “always a concern,” the county jail has policies and procedures in place developed with the help of the McHenry County Department of Health, its accreditation partners, the CDC, the jail’s medical staff, the Illinois Sheriff’s Association and others.

“We are confident that these procedures will protect our employees and inmate population in the best possible way allowed,” Creighton said.

Corrections officers said people still have been coming to work coughing and sick. One officer told the Northwest Herald that another jail employee told administration that his wife is sick with a fever, body aches and chest pain, but she tested negative for the flu and other sicknesses.

The officer said they still are waiting to hear whether she will be tested for the coronavirus.

“The admin told him to do what he wanted as far as staying at work or go home,” the corrections officer said. “If he went home, he would use sick time. So they are giving officers options to come to work even though this is in his house.”

Creighton said the sheriff’s office considers the well-being of its staff a major priority, and it is taking every possible precaution at this time.

“[We] will adjust our responses as new information becomes available,” Creighton said.

If an inmate were to test positive for the virus, they would be quarantined, Creighton said, and staff would confer with medical personnel to determine the best path to succeed and execute the plan.

Employees who tested positive would be sent home for a self-quarantine and referred to their personal physician, he said.

Remaining inmates and staff would be monitored as recommended by health department guidelines, Creighton added.

He said newly arriving detainees are assessed for related symptoms and verbally screened.

“If there is any concern for infection, the individual is isolated and medical staff is contacted for a more comprehensive evaluation,” he said.

The corrections officers said that when inmates come in, they are asked basic medical questions, but these are the same ones that they have been asking “forever.”

One officer said all that’s being asked of inmates when they first come in is whether they have a fever, sore throat or things of that nature.

“That’s pretty much it,” the officer said. “[They] answer no, no, no [then go to the holding room].”

When inmates come to the jail and can’t post bond, according to the corrections officers the Northwest Herald spoke to, they sit in a holding cell with anywhere from one to 20 people, for as many as one or two days, or throughout the weekend if it’s a Saturday. Then, if they post bond, they go to general population.

“Whoever comes in goes in their same [holding] cell, so nothing’s been cleaned, nothing’s been decontaminated,” one corrections officer said. “It’s just right in there. So if anybody was infected ... whatever the case may be, they’re going to contract it.”

Another concern corrections officers said they have is the number of ICE detainees continuing to come in.

Creighton said Thursday that 112 ICE detainees have been brought into the McHenry County Jail since the county’s coronavirus outbreak began March 10.

Recently, Kenosha County in Wisconsin, which also provides services to ICE, announced that in light of the president, Wisconsin governor and county executive declaring a state of emergency to help stop the spread of COVID-19, they no longer would house ICE detainees in the Kenosha County Jail.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many people around the world and has now made its way into our country,” the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release on its website. “To safeguard our employees, their families and the community we serve, all 170 detainees that were being housed in our jail facilities were transported by buses to other [sheriff’s] departments that are currently engaging with ICE housing detainees.

“ICE detainees have come into the U.S. from around the world, and the risks for bringing in new detainees to our jail facilities are far too great at this time.”

ICE detainees still are being brought into the McHenry County Jail, however.

“We cannot speak to Kenosha County’s decisions,” Creighton said, adding that the local sheriff’s office will continue the agreement the county has with ICE to the best of its abilities.

The biggest issue with all of this, corrections officers told the Northwest Herald, is that there are many corrections officers with immunocompromised family members, or who might be immunocompromised themselves and could be bringing the virus home with them.

“Not only [are we] at risk, [inmates] are at risk,” a corrections officer said.

• Senior reporter Katie Smith contributed to this story.

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