LITTLE VILLAGE — Civil rights advocates are asking a federal judge to order the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to provide evidence the jail is providing adequate safety and sanitation measures to protect detainees.
The effort is part of an ongoing lawsuit that previously resulted in a preliminary injunction that requires the sheriff to improve conditions in the jail. But plaintiffs in the suit are saying the sheriff has failed to implement the social distancing and sanitation measures necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the jail despite the court order.
Now civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, the MacArthur Justice Center and the Chicago Community Bond Fund are demanding Sheriff Tom Dart prove his office is implementing testing, PPE, sanitation and social distancing practices.
“It is deeply problematic for the Sheriff to insist that all is well within the Jail, and that the case should be stayed, while at the same time continuing his vehement opposition to Plaintiffs’ efforts to obtain evidence that would shed light on the realities behind jail walls,” said Alexa Van Brunt of the MacArthur Justice Center.
A sworn affidavit filed Wednesday on behalf of detainee Richard Alcantara said the jail has denied him access to medical care for asthma and a painful tooth infection. He said he has also not been tested even though a detainee adjacent to him developed COVID-19 symptoms.
The affidavit of detainee Alexis Andrade said he had never been tested even though he had come into contact with 6 people who tested positive for COVID-19.
Other detainees said they share an open-air dormitory with over 100 people where beds are only two feet apart. They complained of a lack of cleaning supplies, poor sanitation, insufficient PPE and crowded common areas where social distancing is impossible.
The Cook County Jail was at one point the largest single cluster of COVID-19 infections in the country, though Sheriff Tom Dart said the high number of positive cases was due to his office’s rigorous testing practices.
As of May 21, 91 detainees at the jail were positive with COVID-19 including two who are being hospitalized. Another 442 detainees had previously been sick with the infection but have since recovered.
Seven detainees have died from COVID-19 while receiving treatment at local hospitals.
Fifty-eight correctional officers are currently positive for COVID-19. Another 339 sheriff’s employees were previously infected but have recovered and returned to work. Two correctional officers have also died from complications related to COVID-19.
At a Thursday hearing for the case named Mays v. Dart, attorneys for the sheriff argued they didn’t have to provide additional evidence since it wasn’t a request made in the initial preliminary injunction.
“The injunction must be stayed because the efforts … have been successful in controlling the spread of the virus,” said an attorney for the sheriff.
The sheriff’s lawyers argued the test positivity rate at the jail is now less than six percent, far below the county average of over 15 percent.
Plaintiffs in the case are asking for evidence of compliance including CCTV footage of several tiers within the jail, the numbers of people being tested and the identities of detainees who have been infected. They are also asking for information on detainees who may have been infected, then released from the jail.
“We have received information that people who were sick in the jail and have been released have subsequently died, and have not been counted,” Van Brunt said.
The Sheriff’s Office said they had “already implemented the vast majority of measures” demanded by the injunction since before the lawsuit was ever filed. They are asking the judge to lift the preliminary injunction and deny the request for proof of compliance.
“To be clear, the Sheriff is not protesting the importance of social distancing,” said spokesman Matt Walberg. “We have never sought to avoid accountability. Indeed, we have been transparent at every step in providing extensive documentation and evidence verifying our compliance.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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