Sheriff Asks For Help Limiting COVID-19 Spread At Cook County Jail

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaks about COVID-19 in the jail at a news conference in Chicago July 19, 2017. On Thursday, he called on county judges to speed up the resolution of cases that could allow Dart to release more detainees and bring down the population of the jail, which Dart said would help slow the spread of the virus in the facility. G-Jun Yam / Associated Press
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaks about COVID-19 in the jail at a news conference in Chicago July 19, 2017. On Thursday, he called on county judges to speed up the resolution of cases that could allow Dart to release more detainees and bring down the population of the jail, which Dart said would help slow the spread of the virus in the facility. G-Jun Yam / Associated Press

Sheriff Asks For Help Limiting COVID-19 Spread At Cook County Jail

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Thursday pleaded with the community and other government agencies for help slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the county’s jail.

Dart, who oversees the jail, said “COVID is and has been under control in the jail.”

“The harsh reality, though, is that with the community spread exploding, it will impact here,” Dart said.

The coronavirus picture outside of the jail is ugly and getting uglier. On Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a stay-at-home “advisory” because of the city’s surging coronavirus cases. Meanwhile, Illinois public health officials reported another 12,700 confirmed and probable cases of coronavirus and a statewide positivity rate of 12.6%.

In the spring, the jail was home to one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Detainees filed a class action lawsuit to force the sheriff to take extra measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Since the pandemic began, seven inmates and three staff members have died from the coronavirus.

Jails and prisons are especially fertile ground for the virus, with thousands of people in close proximity to one another.

Dart has maintained that he and his staff were on top of the problem “from the beginning” and the federal court intervention was unnecessary.

On Thursday, the jail’s population stood at 5,426 with 91 detainees COVID-19 positive, according to a sheriff spokesman who also said 63 jail staff are COVID-19 positive.

“The one thing we can adamantly tell you without any hesitation whatsoever is the majority of the people who are positive at any given moment inside the jail are people who came into the jail positive,” Dart said. “There isn’t this wild spread going on in the jail.”

That’s why Dart began Thursday’s press conference outside of the jail pleading with Cook County residents to “please, please, please help” limit the spread of the coronavirus by staying home, wearing masks and social distancing.

Dr. Connie Mennella, the chair of correctional health for the county, said the rise in the community is already affecting the jail.

“We are part of the community. We may have barbed wires, we may have brick walls. They are porous,” Mennella said. “What happens in the community greatly impacts the jail and more so because we are vulnerable, given the jail setting.”

The problem is exacerbated by the jail’s rising population.

At the start of the pandemic, county officials took great pains to reduce the number of people locked up in the jail. But now, the population is essentially back to where the numbers were before the pandemic.

Mennella said it is important to bring down the population to allow detainees to have the same social distancing that’s being recommended outside of the jailhouse walls.

Alexa Van Brunt, director of Northwestern’s MacArthur Justice Center and an attorney for jail detainees in their lawsuit over coronavirus protections, said the jail was struggling to do social distancing this spring, when there were 1,500 fewer detainees.

“It is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to social distance in the jail, and it is especially impossible to do when the numbers are as high as they are,” Van Brunt said.

In May, experts warned that the jail population would shoot back up because of the combination of summer crime prompting more arrests, and the limitations imposed on the court system because of COVID-19 meaning fewer people released.

Dart said the court system is operating at “about a third of its normal capacity.” Normally, he said about 350 people have their cases resolved each week and are released from the jail, but right now it’s only about 100 people leaving the jail per week.

“The court system has been very slow,” Dart said. “We need to see more activity from the courts.”

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Van Brunt said it makes sense that the court system needs to reduce its capacity because of the coronavirus. She said the solution is for judges to let more people wait for trial outside of the jail and stop locking up so many pre-trial detainees.

Van Brunt said judges were taking the pandemic into account when setting bail earlier this year and making an effort to keep people out of jail. She said that isn’t happening anymore.

“They’ve really gone back to their old ways in more recent months and are locking people up on cash bonds they can’t afford,” Van Brunt said.

Dart also blamed the Illinois Department of Corrections for the increase in population at the jail. In March, Gov. JB Pritzker signed an executive order shutting down the prisons to new admissions. It was an attempt to slow COVID-19 in prisons but left local jails with nowhere to send people who had been sentenced.

A prison spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.