Judge Says Cook County Doesn’t Have To Release Inmates, But Conditions Must Improve

The Cook County Jail
The Cook County Jail where officials have confirmed 401 cases of COVID-19. A federal judge ruled Thursday against civil rights groups seeking the immediate mass release of detainees in an attempt to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
The Cook County Jail
The Cook County Jail where officials have confirmed 401 cases of COVID-19. A federal judge ruled Thursday against civil rights groups seeking the immediate mass release of detainees in an attempt to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Judge Says Cook County Doesn’t Have To Release Inmates, But Conditions Must Improve

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart does not have to grant the immediate mass release of people from the county jail to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the facility, but U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly did order Dart to take actions to improve conditions in the jail.

Civil rights lawyers had filed a lawsuit seeking improved conditions and releases in the face of the spreading outbreak. As of Wednesday night, Dart’s office reported 401 confirmed cases of the coronavirus among detainees and sheriff’s staff.

“The court’s order is a significant, important first step to protecting the rights and well-being of people at the jail in the midst of a crisis,” Sarah Grady, a lawyer with the law firm Loevy and Loevy, which joined the suit, said. “This is a first step and we will continue to work to protect those who are vulnerable in the jail as the lawsuit continues.”

The judge’s order says that the infection rate in Cook County was 1.56 per 1000 people, whereas in the jail, it was 50 per 1,000 people.

“The disparity between these rates tends to support the contention that the conditions at the jail facilitate the spread of coronavirus and exacerbate the risk of infection for detainees,” Kennelly wrote.

Kennelly ordered the county to take actions to keep the jail sanitary and safe, including testing detainees who show symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19. The judge also ordered the sheriff to enforce social distancing, including halting the use of crowded cells, called bullpens, to hold groups of new detainees during the jails intake process.

County officials have already released some people from the jail using an expedited process for hearing their cases and assessing their risk to the community. The jail population is about 4,500, down about 1,000 people from a month ago. But advocates argue the actions of officials are too slow and too timid for the “rapidly escalating public health disaster.”

“We will continue to advocate for mass release from the jail as the only way to effectively limit the spread of COVID-19 inside,” Sharlyn Grace, with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said.

Dart’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but has vigorously defended its actions and said in court filings that it “has been in front of this pandemic every step of the way.”

Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at sheffernan@wbez.org.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. We apologize for the error.