LITTLE VILLAGE — An appeals court largely sided with detained people who are suing for better protection against the coronavirus outbreak in Cook County Jail.
Seven people detained at the jail have died from coronavirus, and the jail was a hot spot for COVID-19 early in the pandemic. Detained people filed a federal class-action lawsuit in April over conditions at the jail.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, was previously ordered by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly to expand testing, improve sanitation at the jail, provide detained people with personal protective equipment and facilitate social distancing.
Sheriff Tom Dart has maintained the jail had already been implementing these strategies without the intervention of the courts, but last week’s decision mostly reinforced the court order.
The appeals court’s ruling did overturn one piece of the order: the request to eliminate double cells and group sleeping arrangements to promote social distancing.
“This ruling validates what we have known since day one: the Cook County Sheriff’s Office cannot be left to its own devices. Federal court oversight is required to ensure that further lives will not be lost unnecessarily,” said Sharlyn Grace of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which, alongside other civil rights groups, is representing the detained people.
The decision marks the first time nationwide an appeals court has ruled in favor of an injunction meant to protect people incarcerated in jails or prisons from COVID-19, the plaintiffs said.
The sheriff’s attorneys had previously asked for the preliminary injunction to be dropped altogether, arguing it was not necessary given the precautions the jail has taken to protect detainees.
The Cook County Jail was the epicenter for infections in Chicago early on in the pandemic. At one point, the outbreak in the jail was one of the largest single clusters of coronavirus infections nationwide, according to a New York Times report.
Forty detained people and 23 corrections officers are currently positive for COVID-19. There are over 5,300 people incarcerated at the jail.
When the outbreak was at its worst, more than 300 detainees were infected with COVID-19 simultaneously.
More than 500 people currently incarcerated at the jail previously had COVID-19 and have recovered.
“My husband died of COVID-19 while incarcerated in Cook County Jail because Sheriff Dart failed to prepare for this pandemic. Had the measures put in place by the federal court been taken in early March, my husband might still be alive,” said Cassandra Greer-Lee, whose husband, Nickolas Lee, died while incarcerated.
More than 500 employees of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office have been infected with coronavirus, though not all were correctional officers working at the jail. Three correctional officers and one deputy died after developing complications due to COVID-19.
The lawsuit initially requested the county release as many detained people as possible to reduce the population in the jail and stop the spread of the disease, since the suit alleges social distancing is impossible in the crowded jail.
The initial request to reduce the jail population was denied, but the lawsuit is ongoing.
In upholding most of the preliminary injunction, the appeals court ruling recognized the “significant and impressive” precautions being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail.
After correctional officers and detainees alike complained of insufficient personal protective equipment and testing early on, the Sheriff’s Office worked to improve conditions and increase sanitation schedules for the jail facilities.
By April, the jail was also transitioning the majority of detainees to single cells to prevent transmission, with the exception of individuals with mental illness that may be exacerbated by isolation, Dart said. Dart also reopened a barracks facility to isolate detainees who have tested positive for coronavirus.
“The outbreak, through our efforts, was quelled. [This] decision affirms what we have been saying all along: We have gone to great lengths to protect our staff and detainees during this unprecedented crisis and we will continue to do so,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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