LITTLE VILLAGE — A detainee attacked three guards at the Cook County Jail Tuesday, which has been understaffed because of coronavirus.
In the attack caught on video, the detainee choked one guard until he was unconscious and knocked another out with one punch, leaving him hospitalized with serious injuries, and knocked a third to the ground.
At 3:40 a.m. Tuesday, an officer was passing out breakfast at a maximum security facility in the jail. The officer let detainee Dante Jeffries out of his cell to get a cup of water from the lower level, the sheriff’s office said.
But when Jeffries returned, he grabbed the officer by the neck from behind and pulled him into the cell. The officer fought his way out of the cell, but Jeffries eventually pinned the correctional officer down and choked him until he was unconscious, according to the sheriff’s office.
Jeffries then took the officer’s keys and gave them to his cellmate who released another detainee.
When two additional officers arrived on the scene, one of them was immediately knocked unconscious by a punch to the face. Jeffries then attacked the remaining officer, knocking him to the ground.
Moments later, a sergeant arrived armed with a stun gun and was able to get the detainees back into their cells, according to the sheriff’s officers. Two officers were treated for their injuries. One officer who was knocked unconscious is being hospitalized for serious injuries from the attack, the sheriff’s office said.
The video showed that the initial downed officer did not receive assistance from other guards for a full minute after the attack began.
Jeffries, 30, has been in custody since July 2017 on a 113-count indictment including attempted murder, aggravated battery of a police officer, aggravated kidnapping and other charges related to the 2017 shooting of a Chicago Police officer, the sheriff’s office said. The sheriff is seeking criminal charges against Jeffries and his cellmate following the attack.
The attack happened as Sheriff Tom Dart faces mounting criticism over his office’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak at the jail, which has become one of the largest clusters of confirmed cases nationwide.
As of Wednesday, 323 detainees had tested positive for coronavirus and 196 correctional officers have tested positive, according to the sheriff’s office. Three detainees have died.
And with so many officers sick, the remaining guards have been left pulling double and triple shifts to pick up the slack at the understaffed jail, according to the Teamsters Local 700 union, which represents corrections employees.
“It certainly incapacitates them to a large degree to continue the safety and security of the facility,” union vice president Anthony McGee said days before the attack.
Dart 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.
Sheriff’s office spokesperson Allison Peters said the attack shows the real danger the “brave and committed” correctional officers face every day.
“Despite unprecedented challenges our correctional staff face managing the jail during a pandemic, the inherit risks and threats they face day in and day out continue,” Peters said.
Civil rights advocates have sharply criticized the conditions at the jail and called for improved sanitation and a massive reduction in the jail’s population of more than 4,000 detainees.
As of April 9, the jail population has already been reduced by 22 percent after a collaborative effort between the public defender’s office, the sheriff, the courts and the state’s attorney to release nonviolent pretrial detainees for their own safety.
Crowded jail conditions make it impossible to implement sanitation, monitoring and social distancing practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and also make it hard for the diminished staff to protect themselves and the detainees under their care, civil rights groups have said.
A 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.
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