LITTLE VILLAGE — One of the biggest coronavirus clusters in the country is at Cook County Jail, where a detainee died this week from the virus.
Detainee Jeffery Pendleton, 59, was pronounced dead at Stroger Hospital at 9:49 p.m. Sunday, the sheriff’s office confirmed. But civil rights groups say if he had been wealthy enough to pay his bond, he may still be alive.
The virus has spread fast at the jail. As of Monday, 355 detainees and jail staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, the sheriff’s office confirmed. The outbreak at the jail is one of the biggest clusters of known cases nationally, according to the New York Times.
Pendleton was booked into the jail on July 24, 2018 on armed habitual criminal, armed violence, drug and weapons charges, the sheriff’s office said.
Though Pendleton had past convictions on his record, he was presumed innocent under the Constitution of current charges he faced. A judge determined Pendleton was safe for pretrial release and assigned him a $50,000 bond, of which he would have to pay $5,000 to secure his freedom as he awaited his day in court. But Pendleton couldn’t come up with the money, so he remained in the jail as the coronavirus pandemic hit Chicago.
Attorneys at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office filed an emergency motion for Pendleton’s release as the pandemic intensified. But at a hearing on March 26, a motion to reduce his $50,000 bond was denied, according to court records. Pendleton had 15 previous convictions and was required to register as a sex offender following a 1997 conviction for Aggravated Criminal Sexual Assault, the sheriff’s office said.
Four days later, on March 30, Pendleton was hospitalized at Stroger after testing positive for the virus.
Attorneys at the Chicago Community Bond Fund said the denial of the emergency motion for Pendleton’s pretrial release ended up being a death sentence.
Over the last month, the prison reform group has been calling on the courts, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart take swift action to release all detainees eligible for bond as well as older adults and those with underlying medical conditions that make them vulnerable to coronavirus. The bond fund and over 100 law groups, civil rights organizations, justice reform advocates and former Cook County Jail warden Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia have demanded broad release of detainees, fearing the virus would spread rapidly through the jail.
The first two cases at the jail were identified just two weeks ago. As of 5 p.m. Monday, 263 detainees and 92 jail workers have tested positive. Of those 263 detainees, 33 have been moved to a recovery facility and 14 are being hospitalized, according to the sheriff’s office.
Cook County Sheriff Tom 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 as coronavirus spread at the jail.
But “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.
Hours before the sheriff’s office announced the jail’s first death, civil rights groups filed an emergency class-action federal lawsuit against the sheriff demanding the immediate release of detainees. Attorneys worried if something wasn’t done to reduce the jail population, “there is every reason to believe that people will needlessly die,” attorney Stephen Weil 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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