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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

As 300 Test Positive For Coronavirus At Cook County Jail, Civil Rights Groups Sue: ‘People Will Needlessly Die’

So far, 234 detainees and 78 jail staffers have tested positive, according to the sheriff's office. "People are living like animals," one former detainee said.

Inside a unit at the Cook County Jail.
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CHICAGO — With more than 300 confirmed cases of coronavirus at Cook County Jail, civil rights groups are now suing the sheriff’s office, demanding the immediate release of detainees.

As of Sunday, 312 detainees and jail staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart office confirmed. The virus has spread rapidly at the jail that houses thousands, as the first two cases were confirmed just two weeks ago.

The emergency class-action lawsuit on behalf of detainees was filed by law firm Loevy & Loevy and civil rights groups Civil Rights Corps, the MacArthur Justice Center and the Chicago Community Bond Fund. The lawsuit demands the immediate release of vulnerable people in detention.

The infection rate inside the jail is nearly 40 times the overall infection rate in Cook County, attorney Stephen Weil said. One in 20 people at the jail that houses 4,700 have tested positive, and that number grows every day.

So far, 234 detainees and 78 jail staffers have tested positive, and 12 detainees are hospitalized, according to the sheriff’s office.

“Numerous people inside the jail, many with serious medical conditions, are housed in open areas where social distancing is impossible,” Weil said. “If something isn’t done to reduce the number of people in Cook County Jail, there is every reason to believe that people will needlessly die.”

Dart’s Office has worked with the courts, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office to expedite bond hearings and hasten the release of eligible detainees.

The jail also transitioned the majority of detainees to single cells to prevent transmission, Sheriff Tom Dart previously said. A barracks facility was also reopened to isolate detainees who have tested positive for coronavirus.

But Civil rights groups say too few detainees have been released to have any meaningful impact.

“The pace of release has been too slow to effectively mitigate the spread of this disease,” said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

The Sheriff’s Office is required to respond with a brief to the lawsuit by Monday evening. The case was assigned to Judge Matthew F. Kennelly, who set an emergency hearing for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday where declarations from detainees at the jail on the crowded and unsanitary conditions will be presented, attorneys said.

“We are going to present evidence to prove our claims in the lawsuit and show the insufficiency of all the measures the sheriff has instituted thus far, emphasizing the high rate of infection which far exceeds the county rate,” said Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s legal clinic at Northwestern University.

At a recent press conference, Dart said staff is rigorously sanitizing the jail. He also fiercely rejected allegations that detainees did not have access to soap and hand sanitizer. But the lawsuit’s plaintiffs said despite the sheriff’s claims, poor sanitation persists.

“What we’ve heard from employees and detainees alike, is that a lot of the policies the Sheriff is talking about are not being implemented on the ground,” Weil said.

Former detainee Flonard Wrencher spent two days in the jail because he could not afford a $7,500 bond, and was eventually bailed out by the Chicago Community Bond Fund. He said there was no space for social distancing in the jail and that people are squished together “like sardines in a can.”

“The conditions in the county jail is not suitable for human beings. People are living like animals,” he said. “We’re talking about non-convicted people.”

The bond fund began calling for a reduction in the jail population on March 6, when the jail population was at around 5,000. The group penned an open letter to county officials calling for mass decarceration, which has been cosigned by over 100 civil rights groups, legal organizations and prison reform advocates.

The situation at the jail has become a rallying cry for attorneys nationwide, who are sharing emergency motions with each other to get their clients freed.

Despite calls for mass decarceration in the jail, Dart said over 70 percent of detainees are not eligible for release because they are accused of violent crimes.

But Charlie Gerstein of Civil Rights Corps said most of the people in jail have not been convicted of any crime and are presumed innocent by the Constitution.

“The people who must be jailed, as the sheriff would describe them, because they’re supposedly dangerous … they would be released as we sit here right now if someone deposited money on their behalf,” he said.

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

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