LITTLE VILLAGE — Cook County Jail is home to one of the largest clusters of coronavirus in the country — and it’s affecting the workforce at the jail, too.
As of Monday, 181 correctional officers have coronavirus, according to the Sheriff’s office. Remaining staffers are scrambling to fill in the gaps left by their sick colleagues, according to to the Teamsters Local 700 union representing corrections staff
Employees at the jail and the detainees they monitor fear the staffing shortages are making it impossible to keep the jail clean and to monitor quarantined detainees as coronavirus continues to spread rapidly at the jail. As of Monday, a total of 487 people have tested positive for coronavirus at the jail — 306 detainees and 181 guards. Three detainees have died.
Many corrections officers have been mandated to work double and triple shifts to fill-in for sick coworkers, said Anthony McGee, the union’s vice president.
When you’re working 16-hour shifts, it make it impossible to “ensure that same level of sanitation that would normally be the standard as if they were working eight hours. It causes things to get overlooked,” he said. “One false move can help spread this virus throughout the compound.”
In two recent incidents, strained employees forgot to tell officers a detainee they were escorting had coronavirus, putting them at risk, the union said. Some of the officers were not using personal protective equipment at the time because of poor communication, McGee said.
In another incident, a fight broke out in the jail’s central kitchen. One of the involved detainees was found with a shank on them, McGee said, which could have been prevented if officers had properly patted down the detainee.
“We believe that’s a direct result of the sheriff’s office not having proper protocols and procedures in place to allow officers the requisite time to take a break, to get in a lunch, or to only have to work one shift,” McGee said.
Staffing at the jail is stretched by the growing number of sick employees, said Matthew Walberg, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. Up to 1,000 employees are working at the jail on any given shift, according to the union. In total, the sheriff’s office employs about 3,000 corrections staff.
“Staff levels are being stretched due to the monumental effort to create social distance in a facility that was never designed for it,” he said.
A transition to single-cells has increased the sheriff’s staffing needs to monitor the spread-out detainees. Dart also reopened a formerly shuttered divisions of the jail, including off-site isolation and quarantine housing for detainees who have tested positive, which diverts officers from other parts of the jail.
The sheriff has begun to address some of the short staffing issues by redirecting officers normally assigned elsewhere to the jail. As many as 150 sheriff employees were moved from the courthouse to the jail to give corrections officers relief, according to the union.
The sheriff also issued an order to stop officers from working 16 consecutive hours at the jail. While the union commends those efforts, better processes need to be in place to protect detainees and staff, officials said.
Making drastic changes to jail operations while already short-staffed may have unintended consequences for detainees according to Sarah Staudt, an attorney with Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice advocating for a reduced jail population.
“When you have fewer staff, your jail becomes more and more like solitary confinement. Without guards, you really can’t move detainees from one place to another. They don’t get the kind of freedom they really need to be treated like human beings,” she said.
Attorneys seeking improved sanitation at the jail and the release of medically vulnerable and bail-eligible detainees have made similar allegations that short staffing at the jail may be putting detainees in grave danger.
Advocates filed a declaration from the former medical director and chief operating officer of the jail’s medical program, Dr. Michael Puisis, who testified that the housing facilities for detainees with COVID-19 are not adequately staffed to provide the necessary care, including temperature checks and blood oxygen level monitoring.
The federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, the MacArthur Justice Center, Civil Rights Corps, and civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy complained that the remaining staff can’t effectively take care of sick detainees or keep the jail clean enough to stop the spread.
Testimony from detainees and employees said medical staff is too diminished to monitor unquarantined parts of the jail to catch symptomatic detainees early. In quarantined parts of the jail, staff is stretched too thin to regularly take the temperature of exposed detainees, the lawsuit said.
“Without any infection control, these ‘quarantines’ are really just incubators of the infection and are rapidly spreading the disease,” the lawsuit said.
A judge denied the request for mass-releases, but partially affirmed the demands for added safety measures despite the sheriff’s insistence that jail is readily distributing cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.
Staudt said the only way to make the jail manageable with so many sick staff out is to greatly reduce the number of detainees.
“To make social distancing work we have to shrink jail down to a manageable size, so that the shrunken population of staff can handle it,” Staudt said.
As of April 9, Dart, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and The Public Defender’s Office had worked to reduce the jail population by 1,247 since March 9, a nearly 22% decrease.
Dart has maintained it’s not possible to release most of the detainees. Over 70 percent of detainees have been accused of violent crimes, 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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