Reset checks in with Sheriff Tom Dart to discuss the spread of COVID-19 inside Cook County Jail. The facility at one point was described as the “largest known source” of coronavirus cases in the U.S. — a claim Dart says is “unfair” and “reckless.”
“I was the only person testing anyone at the time. Of course I had the highest numbers — a child would know that,” he told WBEZ’s Reset.
Below are highlights from the conversation.
On the status of COVID-19 in Cook County Jail
Dart: Right now in the state of Illinois, the entire prison system — they’ve tested less than two percent of their people. I mean, I’ve tested over 5,500 people. I have 4,700 in custody. Our positivity rate is down to less than 2 percent. The only ones that are testing positive right now are people coming off the street. Eighty five percent of our positives are coming off the street and the other 15 percent could be staff bringing something in. But I mean, we test everyone on the way in. We test them afterwards, if they show any symptoms, you name it.
On slowing the spread of the virus
Dart: I spent all this money opening up closed buildings, social distancing people, doing all the rest of it — because I took this seriously. Very seriously. And in spite of that, we had deaths that we… we feel horrible about that. We tried everything we could.
Our population comes in with lots of health issues coming from communities that have been devoid of (resources) for years. And that’s where it gets troubling for me.
These are horribly difficult times. The pandemic, the violence in our streets, the social unrest… righteous protesting that needs to go on to change the criminal justice system. These are difficult times, but we need thoughtful people.
On being transparent with coronavirus data
Dart: My entire life I have been about transparency and letting the public know because I always felt, frankly, that the media would take the time to digest it… be thorough and objective. And what I found was that was not the case. I have had law enforcement agencies from around the country laughing at me, saying “We saw what happened to you, Tom. And that’s why we don’t turn over any documents, any evidence and the rest of it.” And here I am. I spent the entire time following science from day one.
And I get vilified, I get called the hot spot of the country. I was the only person testing anyone at the time. Of course, I had the highest numbers — a child would know that.
The New York Times put a headline out there that said we are the “hot spot” which demoralized our staff (and) scared the detainees. I had doctors and nurses being called killers and torturers. Really great job. Very objective. Good job.
What society do we have if we just hide all this information? And we don’t tell people what’s going on in nursing homes, what’s going on in jails?
On reducing jail populations in the long-term
Dart: A lot of people were (saying) “You’ve got to reduce your population.” We didn’t have a lot of room to move. Why? Because we’d already done that. We had taken the population from when I first started, it was like 11,000 people in custody to before COVID, I was at about (5,000) people in custody.
We’d cut in half. Why? Because you don’t incarcerate people if they’re mentally ill and they’re poor. So we had gotten rid of all that. So I’m hoping the jails who did this just for a temporary reprieve because of COVID-19 will wake up and say that’s not what jails are for.
The mental health component has to be first and foremost. But the way that we have to be on our toes when it comes to viruses and things like that… We put together what I believe is now being understood to be the national template by thoughtful people as far as analyzing people when they come in the door, testing people when they come in the door, segregating people and the rest of it. But there has to be this comprehensive approach to this because it has a direct impact on the violence we see in our communities if you aren’t treating people in a thoughtful, scientific way.
Justin Kaufmann: What does that look like? Do you have the adequate resources?
Dart: That’s the problem right now. I opened up all these closed buildings… I reduced the population so much by getting rid of the mentally ill and the poor that I had all these empty buildings. I’ve reopened them at huge costs as far as personnel because I have to have people watching them. But I have run out of buildings to reopen, and my population keeps going up because of all the shootings in the community. So I’m really getting in a dangerous time.
And here’s the other curve ball. For no reason whatsoever the state of Illinois shut the prison system down four months ago — gave me four hours notice. So I’m sitting on 450 people that aren’t supposed to be in my custody, they’re supposed to be downstate.
So it’s a complex problem, you know, shootings in the street, having the prison system shut down. I need help in that regard.
On working with law enforcement agencies to prevent jail overcrowding
It was mostly opening buildings. That’s really the only card I have to play because I have no ability to release people otherwise. Just under 90 percent of the people in my custody now are charged with violent offenses. The days of, you know, traffic cases and retail theft cases — they aren’t in the jail anymore. And the other 10 percent… those are the ones waiting to go to prison downstate. It’s frustrating me because we have this thing under control. We’re past flattening the curve. We’re in containment now. We only have 16 detainees that are positive on the entire compound of just under 5,000 people right now. We’ve done this the right way, and it’s showing through all the numbers. But I can’t keep this going if I don’t get some help. And I’m hoping the court system comes back with a vigor… I’ve been complaining about this for over a decade now. We cannot have people sitting in jails for 7, 8, 9 years waiting for trial.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click ‘play’ above to listen to the entire conversation.