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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

With 400 Confirmed Coronavirus Cases At Cook County Jail, Judge Considers Lawsuit Calling For Mass Release

Jail reform advocates say social distancing is impossible for detainees, many of whom are presumed innocent and could be released if they could pay bail.

Inside a unit at the Cook County Jail.
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LITTLE VILLAGE — More than 400 detainees and staffers at the Cook County Jail have tested positive for coronavirus, the sheriff’s office confirmed Thursday.

Cook County Jail has one of the largest single clusters of positive cases in the country, according to the New York Times, though the number of confirmed cases may be due to the sheriff’s strict testing of all detainees showing symptoms. Meanwhile, a judge could rule on a class-action lawsuit that aims to free some detainees from the jail to prevent further infection as early as Thursday.

City Hall filed a brief opposing the lawsuit, arguing that releasing detainees would weigh heavily on the city’s resources and put residents’ health at risk.

The virus has spread rapidly at the jail, which houses 4,000 detainees, since the first two detainees tested positive two weeks ago. As of Thursday, 251 detainees and 150 staffers have now tested positive for coronavirus.

Of those detainees, 22 have been hospitalized and 31 who previously tested positive have been moved to a recovery facility.

A good chunk the work force at the jail has been infected — the jail is typically staffed by 750-1,000 workers on any given day, according to the Teamsters Local 700, the union that represents jail staffers.

Sheriff Tom Dart 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. But Dart said over 70 percent of detainees are not eligible for release since they have been accused of violent crimes.

The sheriff is transitioning most detainees at the jail to single cells to facilitate social distancing, and also created an off-site, 500-bed quarantine and care facility for detainees. But civil rights groups say those actions are not enough to protect the health of the incarcerated since the crowded jail population can be a death sentence for pretrial detainees with underlying health issues that simply can’t afford bail.

“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.

On Sunday, detainee Jeffrey Pendleton died from complications due to COVID-19, 10 days after his motion for release was denied. Pendleton had previously been cleared by a judge for release on bond, but he could not come up with the $5,000 to secure his freedom.

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 bail-eligible detainees and those with chronic medical conditions. 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.

A hearing for the lawsuit was held Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelley. At the hearing, attorneys for the sheriff’s office said every measure is being taken to reduce the jail population and protect detainees from the infection, arguing it is not feasible to mass release those incarcerated.

Defense attorneys statewide have also been sharing emergency motions with each other to get their clients freed on a case-by-case basis as they await mass releases.

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

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