Federal Judge to Hear Testimony on Use of Social Distancing in Cook County Jail

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

A federal judge will decide whether social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures ordered at the Cook County Jail are being properly instituted following calls from criminal justice advocates for additional precautions to protect detainees.

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and his office say they are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus inside the jail. But attorneys representing detainees at the jail say much more needs to be done.

To Dart’s frustration, the jail was recently dubbed the “largest-known source of U.S. infections” by the New York Times.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly rejected a request for the mass release of medically vulnerable detainees, but he did order Dart and his staff to improve safety and sanitation measures at the jail. On Thursday, he heard updates from both sides as to how that order is being implemented.

“More than 4,200 people remain incarcerated in the health hazard that is Cook County Jail,” said Sarah Grady of the Chicago-based law firm Loevy & Loevy, which filed suit against Dart last month. “It is impossible for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to meet their constitutionally mandated duty to keep people in custody safe from COVID-19 under these conditions. Further steps must be taken to protect the lives of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail.”

By Thursday morning, the jail’s population had dipped to 4,178 detainees, its lowest level in decades.

As of Wednesday evening, nearly 450 detainees at the jail had tested positive for the coronavirus, though more than half of them have since recovered, according to the Sheriff’s Office. More than 200 corrections officers and sheriff’s employees are also currently infected with the virus.

In total, six detainees and at least one corrections officer have died after contracting COVID-19. The Sheriff’s Office is also awaiting the autopsy results of a second corrections officer who was found dead over the weekend in his suburban home to see if he too had COVID-19.

The Sheriff’s Office said its medical staff recently began testing all incoming detainees at the jail, whether or not they show any COVID-19 symptoms, along with “select groups” of asymptomatic detainees already inside the jail.

Because of this, they believe the number of positive test results will rise in the near future.

Dart and his office have repeatedly outlined the efforts being made inside the jail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including attempts to enforce social distancing, distributing personal protective gear and adding additional isolation beds.

But they’ve also been heavily criticized for not going far enough, with criminal justice advocates sounding the alarm for weeks that the jail was a ticking time bomb for detainees facing COVID-19.

“It is impossible to know the real rate of infection inside Cook County Jail because testing is so limited and many people with COVID-19 do not show any symptoms,” said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of Chicago Community Bond Fund, in a statement. “We have long suspected that significantly more people in CCJ have COVID-19 and simply have not been tested. The only way to keep incarcerated people safe during this pandemic is to release them. Leaving thousands of people in the cramped, unsanitary confines of Cook County Jail will only lead to more deaths that could have been prevented.”

In a declaration filed with the court prior to Thursday’s hearing, Rebecca Levin, a senior advisor in the Sheriff’s Office, outlined an April 17 walk-through taken at the jail by representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Chicago Department of Public Health.

Levin said that walk-through – which came days after Kennelly ordered the Sheriff’s Office to enforce additional sanitation and social distancing measures at the jail – lasted more than three hours and “provided the representatives with information about different settings: intake; dorms and celled tiers; quarantine and isolation tiers; and cohort isolation and convalescent barracks.”

“The CDC and CDPH representatives commented frequently on the cleanliness of the facility and the noticeable smell of bleach throughout,” Levin wrote. “Representatives observed cleaning by both detainees and staff during the site visit.”

Levin stated the officials “noted increased social distancing” in the jail, particularly with the “reduced density of bunk assignments in the dorms.” She also said one of the CDC officials commented during the visit: “You guys are doing an amazing job.”

Both the CDC and CDPH are expected to use information gained during that walk-through to develop recommendations for the Sheriff’s Office to continue addressing COVID-19 “based on the complex needs of the Jail.”

Those recommendations are expected within the next several weeks. Kennelly is expected to issue a ruling by the end of the week.

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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