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Pilsen, Little Village, West Loop

Jail Detainees Who Can’t Afford Bond Should Be Freed, Group Says As County Works To Prevent Virus Spread

About 1,500 detainees awaiting trial are being held solely because they can’t afford to pay their bond, according to activists.

Cook County Jail is located at 2700 S. California Ave.
Flickr/Zol87
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LITTLE VILLAGE — Because of how easily the coronavirus seems to spread, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is trying to keep the population at the Cook County Jail low while also keeping the public safe from alleged criminals.

On Wednesday, Lightfoot said she’s talked to the courts, the sheriff’s office, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago Police Department about the best way to achieve this. 

“We have been talking to the entire criminal justice network, if you will, about things we can do to keep the jail population low. Obviously we’re not going to shy away from arresting people who are committing violent crime,” Lightfoot said.

The detainee and inmate population of Cook County Jail is about 5,600 — and according to activists, about 1,500 of those people are pre-trial detainees being held solely because they can’t afford to pay their bond.

In an open letter, the Chicago Community Bond Fund and more than 50 other local groups urged the county to release such inmates immediately.

“People incarcerated in jail are one of the most vulnerable populations, and their protection warrants special emergency action … . Incarcerated people have an inherently limited ability to fight the spread of infectious disease since they are confined in close quarters and unable to avoid contact with people who may have been exposed,” the letter read.

Gov. JB Pritzker said Wednesday the state is “taking special care” with people detained in prisons and jails, but the facilities themselves make it difficult to determine how best to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among inmates and workers.

“I’m looking at our prisons and the health care that’s available in those prisons, as well as how we can isolate people if we do find somebody who has COVID-19,” he said. “Our facilities are quite old in the state of Illinois. … They’ve been renovated over time, but they’re still not built for something like this.

“We’re doing the best we can to keep the prisoners safe, as well, as very importantly, the people who” work in prisons.

Something has to be done for the nearly 40,000 prisoners in the state of Illinois, Pritzker said, and his office has “looked at what types of people we think should be considered eligible” for release.

“Having said that, we have some very dangerous people who should not be considered,” Pritzker said. “But there are others who are very vulnerable, who have committed some non-violent offense, and who should be first in line we were to” release people.

On Thursday, a Chicago Police spokesman said the department has not been given any guidance from Lightfoot’s office. 

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office released a statement last week saying there are no known cases of coronavirus at the jail, but reducing the population of non-violent offenders remains a high priority. 

“Since January 24, incoming detainees have been screened for flu-like symptoms. Last week, a series of additional measures — including the suspension of social visits for detainees and limiting outside visitors to essential volunteers, clergy and attorneys — were implemented to reduce the opportunity for the virus to enter the jail. Additionally, all visitors to the jail must pass a screening for COVID-19 symptoms or exposure prior to entry,” Dart said.

Since last week, all incoming detainees have been housed in specially designated receiving tiers where they are observed by medical and DOC staff for seven days for any symptoms of COVID-19 before being transferred to the general population. Cleaning regimens have increased throughout all areas of the jail, and detainees are being educated regarding preventative hygiene and are urged to report the presence of symptoms of the virus in themselves or others, Dart said.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sophia Ansari said the office has talked to “all stakeholders” about the jail population, but had no specific information about releasing inmates being held due to financial hardship.

The Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7, which represents most of the rank and file officers of the Chicago Police Department, was not available for comment Thursday.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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