As of April 12, some 306 Cook County Jail detainees have tested positive for COVID-19, two have died, and the death of a third is under investigation. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers / FLICKR

After Cook County Jail emerged as an epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis this month, with one inmate dead and more than 275 infected, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court seeking the immediate release of medically at-risk people. On April 9, a federal judge rejected the request for releasing prisoners but ordered Cook County sheriff Thomas Dart to improve sanitation and carry out new social distancing measures in the overcrowded facility.

The current rate of coronavirus infection at Cook County Jail is more than 30 times higher than that across the city as whole, according to the judge’s decision. With large groups of detainees crowded together as they await trial, the jail has become the country’s ultimate superspreader, promulgating the transfer of the disease from inmate to inmate, and then into the general population as prisoners are released back to communities that are already hotspots for the virus.

While several prisoner rights advocates welcomed parts of the judge’s decision, they also questioned whether it would reduce infection rates in any substantial way. While Dart is required to improve sanitation in the jail and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to some inmates, “this necessary step was insufficient if we’re serious about flattening the curve and saving lives,” says Amanda Klonsky, a scholar of mass incarceration who spent more than a decade as an educator in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. 

There are currently 4,500 people in Cook County Jail. As of April 12, some 306 of them have tested positive for COVID-19, two have died, and the death of a third is under investigation. A thousand detainees are languishing in the facility because they have been unable to afford money bail. Others, like Vada Allen, a detainee who was twice refused bail despite being infected with COVID-19, are nonviolent offenders who pose no threat to society. The judge’s decision may add a thin layer of protection for detainees and staff, but it does little to remedy an agonizing situation disproportionately affecting the poor and people of color. 

Sharlyn Grace, executive director of Chicago Community Bond Fund, says that while she was “heartened by the recognition [by the federal court] of the danger people in Cook County Jail are facing,” she warned that “if the county does not decarcerate quickly, more people will die. The size of someone’s bank account shouldn’t determine whether or not they survive this pandemic.” 

Besides the infected prisoners, 218 staff members at Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Among them are eight nurses who, until a recent intervention by Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, had been working without crucial PPE like N95 respirator masks. 

Marti Smith, a registered nurse and midwest director of National Nurses United, says nurses at the jail fear retaliation and disciplinary measures if they publicly protest working conditions, even as they privately put themselves at risk. Nurses are interacting closely with infected detainees, then reusing gowns that are intended for a single use: “Those workers are being forced to come back from the detainees’ area in their COVID-covered gowns through ‘clean areas’ like the nurses’ station,” Smith says. “Everything about that place is just horrible.”

County jail officials have defended their response to COVID-19, pointing to an offsite 500-bed quarantine and care facility, and an effort to move detainees from double cells to single cells to increase social distancing. Advocates say it’s too little, too late.

Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet has also emerged as a deadly center of coronavirus infection. Two prisoners have died as a result of novel coronavirus-related complications, and more than one out of every 15 prisoners have tested positive. According to inmates, bars of soap have become sparse, hand sanitizer is nowhere to be found, and many in the facility have been blocked from placing phone calls to family members since the crisis erupted. One prisoner, Lonnie Smith, described the maximum security as a de facto “death row.” 

On April 6, three weeks after he ordered the closure of restaurants and bars to impose social distancing, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order enabling the Illinois Department of Corrections to issue temporary furloughs to prisoners “medically vulnerable . . . to contracting and spreading” COVID-19.

Pritzker’s order followed a separate lawsuit by civil rights groups seeking the release of some 13,000 eligible inmates from what plaintiffs described as “a petri dish” for mass COVID-19 infection. While some advocates welcomed the governor’s move, Bill Ryan, a veteran decarceration activist, dismissed it as a bandage over a gaping wound.

“It’s better than nothing, but it’s next door to nothing,” Ryan says. “What’s needed here is a fundamentally structural change, and if it isn’t made, we can be sure this is going to happen again.”  v