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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

Cook County Detainees Are Socializing As Coronavirus Spreads Through Jail, Staffer Says

Staff did not receive protective equipment until two weeks after coronavirus was detected at the jail, the deputy said: Sheriff Tom Dart "dropped the ball."

Inside a unit at the Cook County Jail.
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LITTLE VILLAGE — A sheriff’s deputy says his boss, Sheriff Tom Dart, has dropped the ball on protecting people at Cook County Jail, now home to one of the largest clusters of coronavirus in the country.

The sheriff’s deputy, who asked for anonymity for fear he could lose his job, said detainees are still socializing in communal areas as the virus rapidly spreads across the jail. As of Thursday night, 276 detainees and 172 Sheriff’s Office staffers have now tested positive for coronavirus — a total of 448 cases, according to Dart’s spokesperson Sophia Ansari. Two detainees have now died from coronavirus.

“I think the sheriff dropped the ball. He didn’t do enough right away,” said the sheriff’s deputy, who has worked at the jail for nine years.

The jail has several divisions based on security classifications, most of which are comprised of pods which contain cells that open to a communal area. The sheriff’s deputy said the jail was still “running hours for the guys to come out of their cells” on Wednesday, putting detainees and jail staffers at risk.

“There really is no social distancing whatsoever,” the deputy said.

Ansari confirmed detainees are still allowed in communal areas amid the outbreak.

“There are rules and regulations in place to create social distancing in those areas,” she said.

The sheriff’s deputy also alleged staff at the jail did not receive masks, medical gloves and hand sanitizer until two weeks after the first cases of coronavirus was identified at the jail. The sprawling complex has a workforce of about 3,000 and currently houses about 4,000 detainees.

Despite now having personal protective equipment, it is not evenly distributed among workers, he said.

“Some divisions have no gloves or not enough for all the officers. We have a surplus in our division,” the deputy said.

He also alleged only 60-70 detainees have been moved to a 500-bed quarantine facility.

Of the 276 detainees who have tested positive, 21 are being monitored and treated at local hospitals and 36 have been moved to a recovery facility, the sheriff’s office said.

The sheriff’s deputy’s allegations were corroborated by a civilian employee who works at the jail who also does not want to be named.

In response to the deputy’s allegations, Ansari said they have provided ample cleaning supplies, disinfectant, soap, hand sanitizer and PPE to staff.

“We are very concerned about the health and safety of our staff,” Ansari said. “… Staff have been provided a hotline they can call to request additional supplies and receive daily reminders on preventative measures. To say they don’t have supplies and don’t have an avenue to get them is completely false.”

In collaboration with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and the Public Defender’s Office, Dart has released several hundred non-violent detainees over the last few weeks to reduce the jail population.

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. 

Dart has also banned social visits for detainees and forced attorneys and pastors to be screened for symptoms; incoming detainees are housed in special tiers where they are observed by staff for seven days before they are transferred to the general population; and cleaning regiments have increased through the jail and detainees were also educated on preventative hygiene, Dart’s website says.

“Even before the virus started rapidly spreading in the Chicago area, the office instituted early screening and testing of detainees and moved to increase the availability of PPE and sanitation supplies throughout the jail. Detainees who test positive are isolated and receive thorough medical attention and cellmates are quarantined and monitored,” Dart’s website says.

The sheriff’s office has partnered with the Roseland Community Hospital to provide on-site testing for frontline staff and has instructed staffers who don’t feel well to stay home, Ansari said.

“We remain in daily contact with the unions that represent staff members, and will continue to work with them to protect our employees and fulfill our obligation to provide a safe, secure jail,” she said.

It was not immediately known how many of the 172 Sheriff’s Office staffers work at the jail, Ansari said. The count includes staff who works outside the jail as well as in places like courthouses, she said.

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

The deputy disputed the jail was clean, saying it’s had a mice problem for more than a year.

“Where I’m working, I have mice running across my feet when I’m sitting down. And then I walk on the tier and open the door and four or five mice will go running. That’s throughout the entire jail for the last year or year-and-a-half and they haven’t addressed that issue,” he said.

RELATED: Family Of Jailed Coronavirus Victim Sues Cook County Sheriff’s Office: ‘He Died In Shackles’

The sheriff’s deputy said while he can handle unruly detainees, he didn’t sign up to work at the jail through a pandemic. Going forward, he said he plans to use as many vacation days as possible to limit his exposure.

“I’m trying to take as many days off per week as I can but there are only so many days you can take,” he said.

His biggest fear is bringing the virus home to his family.

“It’s hard to distance yourself in a house. Everyone is there, no one is leaving. It’s tight quarters,” he said. “If I were to quarantine myself, I’d be sleeping in my car.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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