A federal judge has refused to release inmates from Chicago’s Cook County jail despite the fact that it is now the cluster of coronavirus cases in the United States.
Civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit last week seeking improved conditions and releases in the face of the accelerating outbreak at the jail, where at least 401 infections have been reported among detainees and staff.
In a ruling on Thursday, US District Judge Matthew Kennelly denied immediate mass release to home incarceration and other forms of custody but acknowledged the dire situation inside the complex as he handed down a set of mandates directing Cook County Tom Dart to take action to stop the spread.
Kennelly noted that the jail currently has the highest rate of new COVID-19 infections in the country with 50 per 1,000 people, far exceeding that of Cook County, which stood at 1.56 per 1,000 as of Monday.
Inmates at the jail have plastered handmade signs with desperate pleas including ‘SAVE US’ and ‘WE MATTER 2’ in their cell windows, as seen in heartbreaking photos taken Thursday.
A federal judge has refused to release inmates from Chicago’s Cook County jail as it faces the highest coronavirus infection rate in the United States with 401 cases as of Thursday
Heartbreaking photos from outside the jail on Thursday show handmade signs with the words ‘SAVE US!!’ and ‘WE MATTER 2’ plastered on cell windows
Civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit last week seeking improved conditions and releases in the face of the accelerating outbreak at the jail
In his ruling, Kennelly described the complex as a ‘a campus of separate physical facilities’ with a population ‘the size of a small (but not all that small) town.’
The judge wrote that the prison is full of people who the government has decided to imprison ‘pending determination of their guilt or innocence, and by doing so the government takes on an obligation to protect their health and safety’.
‘It cannot be forgotten that by requiring this, we safeguard the health and safety of the community at large – from which the detainees have come and to which they and the officers guarding them will return,’ he added.
In a ruling on Thursday, US District Judge Matthew Kennelly (pictured) denied immediate mass release but acknowledged the dire situation inside the complex
Referencing the lawsuit, Kennelly wrote: ‘The [detainees] have demonstrated that certain of the conditions created by the intentional actions of the sheriff enable the spread of coronavirus and significantly heighten detainees’ risk of contracting the virus.’
He noted that sheriff’s personnel have not been cleaning common spaces after an inmate in that area has tested positive for coronavirus.
He also wrote that Sheriff Dart has not provided inmates with adequate supplies of soap, cleaning supplies or personal protective equipment like face masks.
Additionally, Kennelly also asserted that conditions at the complex ‘make social distancing impossible’ – pointing to how beds are only separated by a few feet and rooms are ‘like a military barracks’.
Judge Kennelly said sheriff’s staff have failed to adequately clean the complex or provide inmates with the supplies they need to stay healthy. An officer is seen at the jail on Thursday
The judge handed down a set of mandates ordering Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart (right) to improve conditions over the weekend
The judge ultimately gave Dart three deadlines to improve certain conditions.
By Friday, Dart must begin providing all detainees with enough soap and/or sanitizer to frequently clean their hands on Friday.
He is also required to provide the staff and detainees with sanitation supplies so they can ‘regularly sanitize surfaces and objects on which the virus could be present’.
Dart has until Saturday to implement a policy ‘requiring prompt coronavirus testing of detainees who exhibit symptoms consistent with coronavirus disease’ as well as detainees who have been exposed to such individuals.
The Saturday deadline also applies to an order to enforce social distancing during the new inmate intake process – specifically suspending the use of bullpens to hold detainees awaiting intake.
By Sunday, Dart must provide all quarantined detainees with face masks.
One of the law firms behind the inmate’s suit, Loevy and Loevy, called Kennelly’s ruling ‘a significant, important first step to protecting the rights and well-being of people of the jail in the midst of a crisis’.
‘This is a first step and we will continue to work to protect those who are vulnerable in the jail as the lawsuit continues,’ Loevy and Loevy lawyer Sarah Grady said in a statement.
The Cook County Sheriff’s office, which runs the jail, issued the latest figures on the outbreak on Thursday evening. At least 401 cases have been confirmed – an increase of 48 from numbers reported earlier this week
A sign in a cell window at the jail calls for a hunger strike to force officials to protect inmates
The Cook County Sheriff’s office, which runs the jail, issued the latest figures on the outbreak on Thursday evening.
At least 401 cases have been confirmed – an increase of 48 from numbers reported earlier this week.
Almost 70 percent of those cases – 276 – were detainees and 172 were sheriff’s staffers.
Twenty-one detainees are currently hospitalized and 36 have been moved to a recovery facility.
A 59-year-old detainee died last week of apparent complications due to coronavirus.
The sheriff’s office did not say how many of the roughly 5,500 detainees have been tested but said 49 tests have come back negative.
‘Sheriff’s officers and county medical professionals are aggressively working round-the-clock to combat the unprecedented global coronavirus pandemic,’ the statement said.
‘Even before the virus started rapidly spreading in the Chicago area, the office instituted early screening and testing of detainees and moved to increase the availability of PPE and sanitation supplies throughout the jail.
‘Detainees who test positive are isolated and receive thorough medical attention and cellmates are quarantined and monitored.
‘The Sheriff’s Office also created an off-site, 500-bed quarantine and care facility for detainees, took up an unprecedented effort to move detainees from double cells to single cells to increase social distancing, partnered with The New Roseland Community Hospital to provide on-site testing for frontline staff, and is consulting with noted sanitation and infectious disease experts.’
The Cook County jail is now believed to be the largest known source of coronavirus infections in the country.
Previously, the Seattle nursing home linked to the initial outbreak in the US, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and the New Rochelle neighborhood in New York had been the biggest coronavirus clusters.
Cook County, which includes Chicago, is now an emerging hotspot for the coronavirus with more than 11,062 cases and 351 deaths.
Officials have already released hundreds of inmates early if they were convicted of nonviolent crimes like disorderly conduct.
It comes as jails and prisons across the country are reporting an accelerating spread of coronavirus.
More than 280 inmates and 400 staff in New York prisons have been infected with the coronavirus and at least seven people have died, according to the New York Department of Corrections.
Louisiana has also reported coronavirus-related deaths among prison inmates.
The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of nearly 2.3 million as of 2017, including nearly 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and another 745,000 in local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.