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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

17 Detainees, 5 Cook County Jail Staffers Test Positive For Coronavirus

As the virus continues to spread, attorneys are sharing emergency motions and prison reform groups are paying bonds to get the detainees freed.

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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NORTH LAWNDALE — Seventeen Cook County Jail detainees and five jail staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, the sheriff’s office confirmed Thursday.

As the virus continues to spread at the jail, attorneys are sharing emergency motions and prison reform groups are paying bonds to get the detainees freed.

Earlier this week, just two inmates and a corrections officer had tested positive for coronavirus.

By Thursday morning, many more at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19: 17 detainees, four corrections staffers and one sheriff’s officer who works at the jail, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. A total of 50 people have been tested at the jail. Two have been confirmed negative for the virus and the results of 31 tests are still pending.

Attorneys at Lawndale Christian Legal Center made it their goal to try to get all of their clients at the jail released as the pandemic intensified. The lawyers wrote legal motions that highlighted the extreme health risks their clients faced in the crowded jail. The majority of jail detainees the center represents have not been found guilty of a crime and are presumed innocent as they await trial, attorney Jessica Gingold said.

“The situation for most of our clients being held was that they can’t afford the bond,” Gingold said. “The reality is, wealthy people who are in jail during a public health crisis who can post the bond can get out and follow the guidance of social distancing. And poor people are stuck in jail.”

Lawndale Christian Legal Center was the first to file motions in Cook County arguing detainees should be released because of COVID-19. After securing the release of two inmates on March 16, the attorneys began sharing their successful motions with other legal groups in Chicago and across the country to cut down on the legwork needed to free detainees.

This week, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli argued a mass motion for the release of people incarcerated at the jail that was in part built on the motions previously filed and shared by Lawndale Christian Legal Center attorneys.

The increased synergy to address the health crisis in the jail has quickly helped move cases forward, but has stopped short of the mass decarceration organizations are hoping to achieve. The courts have introduced an expedited bond review process and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has pledged to release detainees who are not a threat to public safety, though.

Attorneys have been uploading motions, legal templates and declarations from health experts about COVID-19 risks in jail to Google groups and Slack channels so other defense attorneys can use them quickly, Gingold said. The initial motions used by Lawndale Christian Legal Center were built from documents shared by defense attorneys in New York and New Orleans. Groups like the National Juvenile Defenders Center have also been aggregating those documents for use by attorneys nationwide.

Sharing these motions has been especially helpful because the scale of the coronavirus pandemic is largely unprecedented, so these types of legal arguments are brand new.

“Something like this is unknown territory. We’ve never written motions about it before. … Anytime that you have others who have started that effort, or found the articles that you can build on, saves a lot of time,” Gingold said.

Alongside their petition to release eligible detainees at the jail, the Cook County Public Defender’s Office has been circulating sworn statements of medical professionals including a former medical director of Cook County Jail documenting the risk of the coronavirus spreading within the jail’s population.

“These things have been publicly filed, so theoretically they can cite, attach, or simply quote one of these things that have been filed in this particular case, in support of their own case,” said Daniel Massoglia, an attorney at First Defense Legal Aid.

The Chicago Community Bond Fund began raising the alarm on the risk to people in Cook County Jail on March 6, long before it became a citywide issue. An open letter penned by them illustrates wide collaboration on the issue, with signatures from more than 100 civil rights organizations, legal aid groups and criminal justice reform advocates.

“When the consequences of prosecuting a case during this pandemic could be death, the state’s attorney should factor into their calculus about what is in the interest of public safety,” said Sharlyn Grace, the executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

As the virus spreads, the Chicago Community Bond Fund and other groups announced they would pay $120,000 in bonds to free 20 detainees.

Legal groups are working with the bond fund to push for the broad release of detainees, too, Grace said. The group has shared legal briefs and motions written by Lawndale Christian Legal Center and the MacArthur Justice Center to any lawyers in need of support.

“Anything we can do to reduce the need to recreate resources that already exist or reinvent the wheel is really important for attorneys getting their clients out as quickly as possible,” she said. “… The level of information sharing nationally is huge. I certainly haven’t seen anything like it at this speed.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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