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Officials ‘Did Nothing’ To Prevent Latest Coronavirus Outbreak In Jail, Guards And Advocates Say

Officers and supporters of inmates are furious with the way Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has handled the pandemic in the jail.

Inside a unit at the Cook County Jail.
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LITTLE VILLAGE — Correctional officers and advocates for incarcerated people say little has been done to prepare Cook County Jail for a winter wave of coronavirus cases, despite the sheriff’s assurances.

The Teamsters Local 700 union, which represents nearly 3,000 correctional officers at the jail, said Sheriff Tom Dart — who now has the virus himself — is downplaying the crisis as the jail’s COVID-19 outbreak swells and its population grows.

“While Sheriff Dart parades in front of TV cameras to claim that he has had COVID-19 ‘under control pretty much since the beginning,’ our officers are not receiving proper [protective equipment] and are being forced to interact with inmates who are not wearing masks,” said union Vice President Anthony McGee.

Eight detainees have died from complications related to COVID-19 since March. As of Sunday, 227 detained people are currently positive for COVID-19, including five who are hospitalized.

Seventy-two correctional officers are positive for COVID-19, as are 58 other Sheriff’s Office employees. Four correctional officers and one deputy have died from the disease. More than 700 Sheriff’s Office employees have been infected since the outbreak began, according to county records.

The union recently conducted a survey, and a third of officers who responded reported they weren’t being given adequate equipment, the union said in a news release. More than half of correctional officers who responded reported being forced to work with detainees who didn’t have masks, it said.

“Sheriff Dart has known for months that COVID-19 would likely spike again at the jail, yet he did nothing to develop a comprehensive plan to protect corrections officers and others in the jail from the deadly virus,” McGee said.

Claims made by the union are attempts to “sow grievances by playing on fears and trafficking in lies,” said Kathleen Carmody, a spokeswoman for the sheriff.

“The truth is the jail has been at the forefront of combating this virus … by leading the nation in testing, redesigning jail processes to drastically limit human contact, dramatically ramping up sanitation efforts and distributing ample masks and other” protective equipment, Carmody said in a statement.

Advocates for those detained at the jail fear the outbreak will only get worse due to crowded conditions.

During the spring spike in cases, more than 1,000 detainees and correctional officers tested positive with COVID-19. But the spread of the disease at that time was dampened by vast reductions in the jail population.

The jail population decreased by 25 percent in only a few weeks in April. The reduction down to about 4,000 detainees freed up space and resources to facilitate more social distancing behind bars.

But as of Monday, the jail’s population has risen to 5,547, nearly as high as it was before the outbreak hit in March.

Drastically reducing the number of people in the jail is the only way to prevent needless loss of life, said Sarah Staudt of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.

But the expedited bond review process that freed up space in the spring was a temporary measure. The courts haven’t been doing bond reviews at the same pace as the height of the outbreak, Staudt said, and many people remain in the crowded jail only because they cant afford bail.

We haven’t been reviewing people’s bond lately to make sure that they are affordable,” Staudt said. “This is something that needed attention a long time ago … to make sure that we were ready for another coronavirus surge.”

Many at the jail are incarcerated on low-level offenses, Staudt said.

According to a Chicago Appleseed analysis of jail roster data obtained from the Sheriff’s Office, more than 1,000 people were incarcerated at the jail as of Oct. 31 for low-level charges like narcotics, possession of a stolen vehicle, retail theft and driving under the influence. More than 220 were jailed for narcotics or cannabis, and more than 40 were jailed for retail theft.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans ordered the courts in late November to review cases to determine whether to reduce bail amounts in coordination with the public defender’s and state’s attorney’s offices. Priority will be given to people vulnerable to COVID-19, like pregnant women, as well as those with low-level charges and those who cannot afford bond, according to a statement released by the court.

But this iteration of the bond review process is “not even the same level of response that we had in April,” Staudt said, even though the surge in COVID cases is anticipated to be more “serious than what we had in April.”

The chief judge dedicated two courtrooms to the spring bond hearings because during the early part of the pandemic, not all courtrooms were running, said spokesperson Mary Wisniewski.

But since all courtrooms are up and running again, judges can review bond on a case-by-case basis.

“Anyone is free to bring any bond motion and present it to the judge before whom the case is pending. …There is no need to have any specific courtrooms dedicated to this purpose,” she said.

The recent order directs judges to review cases at their own discretion, an order that doesn’t have a lot of teeth, detainee advocates said.

“Nothing is fundamentally changing, besides an advisory saying to pay more attention to this,” Staudt said.

Advocates for detainees are calling on county officials to build on the expedited bond review process that depopulated the jail in the spring, rather than scaling it down.

“We know what to do,” Staudt said. “We learned so many lessons from April … all we need to do is do it again. And we’re not even doing that. “

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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