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After 2 Inmates Test Positive For COVID-19, Activists Urge Release Of Non-Violent Cook County Jail Detainees

"We have all been instructed to shelter in place to protect our health. This is impossible for people incarcerated inside Cook County Jail," a public defender said.

Faith leaders gather at Cook County Jail to seek the release of detainees to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Chicago Community Bond Fund
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26th AND CALIFORNIA — Two Cook County jail detainees and one correctional officer have tested positive for COVID-19 — and activists are demanding the release of non-violent inmates to reduce jail crowding and prevent the virus’ spread.

Two detainees in the county jail have contracted the novel coronavirus and have been moved to isolated cells in the jail’s medical facility, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. The detainees, aged 18 and 42, have been housed at the medical facility since they started exhibiting flu-like symptoms on March 20.

The announcement of the detainees’ contraction of the virus come one day after the Cook County Sheriff’s Office said a correctional officer tested positive for COVID-19.

The spreading of the coronavirus to jails and prisons has widely been expected by public health officials because such facilities are densely populated. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, said it is taking precautions to help prevent the spread of the virus, but some officials and activists want the sheriff to go father and release detainees from the facility.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said she is working with Sheriff Tom Dart and the public defender’s office to release any jail detainees deemed not to be a threat to public safety.

Over 1,200 cases for early release were reviewed this weekend, Foxx’s office said. The state’s attorney’s office has also temporarily stopped prosecuting low-level, non-violent drug offenses during the outbreak.

“We will continue this process and agree to appropriate releases for the duration of this pandemic, to limit the number of people in our jail and reduce the number of people needlessly coming to court while recognizing there are both public health and safety risks that some detainees may pose,” Foxx said in a statement.

On Monday morning, faith leaders and the Chicago Community Bond Fund rallied outside the jail and called for the release of detainees.

Releasing inmates will help prevent the spread of the virus, and will help former detainees practice social distancing and other initiatives meant to stem the virus’ spread, according to advocates. On Monday, New Jersey announced it would release 1,000 inmates to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have all been instructed to shelter in place to protect our health. This is impossible for people incarcerated inside Cook County Jail,” Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said in a statement, according to the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “Leaving people incarcerated during this pandemic is unsafe and unjust.”

For weeks, the Community Bond Fund has advocated for the release of jailed persons to help prevent coronavirus contraction.

The group began by demanding the release over detainees over the age of 50 who have compromised immune systems and anyone jailed due to unpaid bond. It also called for increased access to video visitations, hand sanitizer and other cleaning products.

Now that the virus is in the jail, the group is asking for the mass release of detainees. Campanelli, the county’s public defender, has filed an emergency court petition seeking the detainees’ release.

“Unless thousands of people are released, the inevitable, exponential rise of COVID-19 infections in the jail will bring down the entire county’s health system,” said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “Cook County officials will have blood on their hands for dragging their feet over the last two weeks or more, when this inevitability came to light.”

Dart’s office said it has implemented a number of procedures to help protect detainees and employees of the county jail system, his office said. Those include regular cleaning and disinfecting and an information campaign on how detainees can stay virus free and know what symptoms to look for.

Anyone with flu-like symptoms will be tested, and additional space has been freed up in case more isolation housing is needed, Dart’s office said.

The correctional officer who has contracted the virus has been isolated at home, according to the sheriff’s office. Video has been used to identify anyone who came into close contact with the infected person. A “small” number of jail staff have been advised to stay home, the sheriff’s office said.

Detainee visits have been temporarily suspended to help stop the spreading of the virus, the sheriff’s office said.

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