Nurses lined the sidewalk near Cook County Jail Friday evening, standing six feet apart and wearing masks, to pray and protest the ballooning coronavirus outbreak behind bars. The sheriff’s office has reported 415 cases among staff and detainees.
“This is a growing beast,” Rolanda Clark, a nurse at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital, said.
The nurses warned that the virus threatens not only staff and people behind bars, it threatens the entire county. The staff go home to their families and when staff or detainees get seriously sick, they go to the hospital, using valuable medical resources.
Elizabeth Lalasz, another nurse at Stroger, said as the number of positive coronavirus cases at the jail skyrocketed, the unit where she works was turned into a space for treating people from the jail with COVID-19. She said the unit is almost full.
“Stressful doesn’t even scratch the surface,” Lalasz said. “Healthcare workers see a lot, especially in the public sector and … people are terrified.”
Prisons and jails are petri dishes for the virus, because social distancing is nearly impossible. Lalasz and Clark are both members of the National Nurses United union, which is calling for the jail to release more people as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19.
County officials have been reviewing cases of pre-trial detainees for release. The jail population is now 4,435, more than 1,200 less than it was a month ago.
But unhappy with the pace of releases, civil rights groups filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to mandate immediate mass releases of inmates to protect the lives of detainees and slow the spread of the coronavirus. On Thursday the judge overseeing the case denied that request.
“We feel like cannon fodder,” Lalasz said.
126 sheriff’s staff working in the jail have tested positive for COVID 19, and it’s not just medical staff. David Evans III is a Cook County correctional officer and the chief union steward for correctional officers at the jail.
“For every officer who is quarantined or sent home due to possible exposure, there are other officers who are mandated and become overworked, tired, and at increased risk of exposure due to the short staffing,” Evans said in court documents included in the lawsuit filed by the civil rights groups.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office has said the jail “has been in front of this pandemic every step of the way.” Dart has said he’s provided sanitizer, cleaning supplies and helped with efforts to decrease the jail population.
But staff say the reality is much different from what Dart has portrayed.
In court records, Evans said he’s observed “dozens of detainees to be packed together” in some parts of the jail.
“Frequent hand washing tools are not available for officers throughout the compound, nor is hand sanitizer, which is sporadically available or provided in such small amounts that officers must ration it even for themselves in some areas,” Evans wrote.
Despite refusing the request to order mass releases, the judge did order Cook County Jail to practice proper sanitation and social distancing measures.
The nurses ended their night with a word of prayer from Scott Onque, a pastor at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago.
“We pray for the guards and the staff that go in and out of this facility. We pray, Father God, for the nurses and the doctors that continue to do their work, and we ask for divine protection over all of them.”
Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included a caption that misidentified the speaker in the photo. Her name is Elizabeth Lalasz. We apologize for the error.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said there were 500 confirmed cases at the jail including 203 staff members as reported by the Sheriff’s office. A spokesperson for that office provided updated figures showing that only 126 of those staff members work at the jail. The other 77 infected employees serve in other roles.