Jail gets a small reprieve

Insurance company agreement allows Edgar County Jail to continue as booking office

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he cellblocks in the Edgar County Jail are empty and have been for several days, but the jail is not officially closed.

Action to close the jail was tabled at the Wednesday, Nov. 27, Edgar County Board meeting because the future status of the jail remains fluid. In September, Illinois County Risk Management, the insurer for the jail, announced it would no longer cover the operation of a jail in Edgar County because of management and policy issues at the jail. The Illinois Department of Corrections was also threatening legal action for failure to address problems focusing on the lack of staff and staff training.

It has been a back-and-forth of communication between county board members, Edgar County Sheriff Jeff Wood and the outside authorities seeking to find a compromise allowing at least partial operation of the jail as a booking facility and perhaps housing some prisoners in the newer portion of the building.

A deal seemed in place until Nov. 1, when high level executives at the insurance company refused to allow the holding of anyone, even for booking, in the building. The county board and sheriff started making arrangements to house inmates at other facilities and to close the jail by Dec. 1, per the insurance company’s instructions.

Everything changed abruptly again between the first and second November board meetings. Jay Willaman, a retired warden of operations at the Danville Correctional Center of the Illinois Department of Corrections, was hired as the jail administrator for Edgar County.

He immediately opened new conversations with the insurance representatives and his contacts at DOC.

“The biggest thing was policy,” said Willaman. “Things were getting done but it wasn’t written down so we were not passing audits.”

With Willaman in place and implementing new policies based on DOC protocols, the insurance company partially relented on the demand to close the jail. The building will continue as a booking center so deputies and police officers do not have to transport arrested people out of the county.

“If we can utilize the booking area and holding cells, it helps the jail,” said Willaman.

People arrested anywhere in Edgar County will still be brought to the jail for booking and can be held there for approximately five hours while Willaman arranges a transfer to either Coles, Crawford, Cumberland or Clark counties where they will be held in custody.

These changes have resulted in the layoff of all but two correctional officers who worked at the jail. One male and one female officer were retained but they may work on call and come in as needed to book or transport prisoners.

“For legal purposes, I have to have a female officer,” said Willaman.

He added two of the laid off corrections officers have expressed a desire to come to back to work when the jail does eventually re-open. Those people, Willaman said, will have to go to the police academy to receive proper training.

When the dust settles, he plans to recruit more correctional officers to build a staff so there are two correctional officers on duty at all times in compliance with DOC regulations. Past DOC inspections of the local jail often faulted the facility for this violation.

“Frequently, there was only one person trying to do the job of two people,” he said.

Willaman is also responsible for devising the system using correction officers for transporting arrested and in-custody people from Edgar County to the other jails and bringing them back as needed for court appearances.

“That was one of the things the sheriff and I talked about was keeping the police on the streets,” Willaman said.

In some instances, an officer may need to remain at the jail with the in-custody person until Willaman, or one of the others working on-call to handle bookings can get to the jail. He said to help with this both Wood and Paris Police Chief Eric Brown have expressed a willingness to learn the booking process.

As of Wednesday, Nov. 27, Edgar County was paying to house about 26 people in neighboring jails at costs ranging from $25 to $60 per day per person.

His goal is to get the jail back in operational condition to satisfy both the insurance company and DOC within three to five months. He believes getting the cellblocks in the 1970s portion of the jail operational with all new policies and procedures in three months is feasible. It may take longer to bring the bottom floor cellblock built in the 19th century back into service. He was uncertain about the long-term status of the upper cellblock in the older part of the jail.

“Moving everybody out gives us the opportunity to clean up the cells and put in new lights. We are putting in new showers,” said Willaman. “Despite what some people around town were saying things were working but not as they should. We are making the renovations to bring it up to where it should be.”