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Judge Denies Push For Mass Release Of Cook County Jail Detainees Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

The sheriff's office will be held to higher safety and sanitation standards to prevent further spread at the jail under the judge's ruling.

The Cook County Department of Corrections and George N Leighton Criminal Courthouse are visible looking north on California Avenue in Chicago in late March 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — A federal judge has denied a motion seeking the mass release of detainees at Cook County Jail, where more than 400 detainees and staffers have tested positive for coronavirus.

A class-action lawsuit brought by prison reform groups sought to free to some detainees from the jail to prevent further infection. Cook County Jail has one of the largest single clusters of positive cases in the country, according to the New York Times.

While U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelley dismissed a motion for release, he granted a motion hold the sheriff’s office to higher safety and sanitation standards. The sheriff’s office will be required to provide soap to all detainees and offer rapid testing to people in custody showing symptoms. All detainees in quarantine must be provided personal protective equipment and strict social distancing guidelines must be practiced during the intake process, according to the judge’s ruling.

“It’s an important first step in protecting the rights of the detainees,” said Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s legal clinic at Northwestern University. “This isn’t likely the end to the litigation. We’re evaluating next steps.”

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has held these practices were already in place at the jail including widespread testing and readily available personal protective equipment. But Van Brunt said despite the sheriff’s orders, detainees said in declarations safety measures were not being effectively implemented at the jail.

“What the sheriff said was happening, wasn’t actually happening on the ground,” Van Brunt said. “…It was the detainee declarations and the declaration of a Cook County Correctional Sheriff’s Deputy that convinced the court that the sheriff’s assurances weren’t enough and that things had to change on the ground.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Sophia Ansari said Judge Kennelly acknowledged running the jail is an “extraordinarily difficult task” made all the more difficult by a pandemic.

“We appreciate that the Judge acknowledged the many unique and aggressive efforts that the office has undertaken to identify and help those who catch the virus and to limit its spread,” she said. “Much of what the court is requiring today has been well underway for weeks and even months in some cases.”

Ansari said most of what the prison reform groups alleged “was refuted by the factual record.”

“Unfortunately, all of this could have been accomplished without this unnecessary legal drama if the plaintiffs’ attorneys had accepted our invitation to work with us, rather than against us,” she said. “Instead, this headline-seeking lawsuit is an unnecessary and costly distraction in the middle of such a crisis for our frontline officers and medical staff, whose round-the-clock work is saving lives.”

Ansari said Dart, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and The Public Defender’s Office has worked to reduce the jail population by 1,247 since March 9, a nearly 22% decrease.

The sheriff’s office has until Monday to submit a plan showing how the jail will comply with the required improvements.

Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said she was disappointed by the ruling.

“Leaving people incarcerated in Cook County Jail during this public health crisis is effectively leaving them to die,” Grace said. “…Nearly one thousand of these people are incarcerated only because they can’t afford to pay their bond.”

Civil rights groups filed the emergency class-action federal lawsuit against the sheriff demanding the immediate release of bail-eligible detainees and those with chronic medical conditions over the weekend. 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.

On Sunday, detainee Jeffrey Pendleton died from complications due to COVID-19, 10 days after his motion for release was denied. 

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

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