Lawsuit: Chicago jail has failed to stop 'rapidly unfolding public health disaster'

The assistant director of Cook County Jail testified that more than 175 tiers in the facility have transitioned to single-cell housing to help stem the spread of COVID-19


By Jason Meisner and Megan Crepeau
Chicago Tribune

COOK COUNTY, Ill. — The assistant director of Cook County Jail testified in federal court Thursday that more than 175 tiers in the sprawling facility have been transitioned to single-cell housing to help stem the rapid spread of coronavirus that so far has killed six inmates and a correctional officer.

In addition to putting more prisoners in cells by themselves, jail officials have stepped up social distancing measures by spray painting “X’s” on the floors to try to keep detainees 6 feet apart, said Mike Miller, executive director of the Cook County Department of Corrections.

Ana McCullom and a coalition of activists from across the Chicago area protest in a caravan of vehicles to slow traffic on S. California outside the Cook County Jail calling for the mass release of incarcerated people in the state of Illinois to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. (Photo/ E. Jason Wambsgans of Chicago Tribune via TNS)
Ana McCullom and a coalition of activists from across the Chicago area protest in a caravan of vehicles to slow traffic on S. California outside the Cook County Jail calling for the mass release of incarcerated people in the state of Illinois to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. (Photo/ E. Jason Wambsgans of Chicago Tribune via TNS)

They’ve instructed inmates to spray down showers with disinfectant after use, handed out writing tablets and puzzle books to keep detainees occupied, and threatened those who violate social distancing protocols with loss of phone time or even the privilege of using the microwave, Miller testified via a video link in U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly’s courtroom.

His testimony came as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Loevy and Loevy law firm and the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University alleging Sheriff Tom Dart has failed to stop a “rapidly unfolding public health disaster” at the jail, which has been identified as one of the nations’ leading hot spots for COVID-19 infections.

And attorneys for the plaintiffs kept up their pressure calling for improvements Thursday. They have continued to argue that not enough is being done to enforce social distancing, which in some settings — such as double-occupant cells and dormitories where dozens of inmates sleep together on cots — is simply impossible, and inmates are paying for it with their health.

“The virus is spreading rapidly in the jail since the issuance of this court’s order,and that is not surprising: People are sleeping within 3 feet of each other, eating and using showers in close proximity to each other, and touching the same surfaces,” the plaintiffs wrote in an ongoing request for a preliminary injunction.

Earlier this month, Kennelly rejected an emergency request by plaintiffs in the suit to order the release of hundreds of medically vulnerable detainees due to the pandemic threat. Kennelly did, however, grant a temporary restraining order forcing Dart to comply with strict sanitation and testing measures.

Thursday’s hearing focused in large part on efforts to implement social distancing at the jail, a crucial measure to halt the disease’s spread.

“The sheriff’s decision not to enforce social distancing within Cook County Jail is objectively unreasonable,” attorney Sarah Grady argued for the plaintiffs. “They offer no details other than vague platitudes … they admit they are not enforcing social distancing in the common areas.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers asked Kennelly on Thursday to order the sheriff’s office to implement a plan mandating 6 feet of social distance between each person at the jail, including in through-ways and common areas, except in cases of “extreme emergency.” Detainees should all be kept in single cells and dormitory-style housing should be closed, Grady argued.

Attorneys for the sheriff’s office asserted that such an order would go above and beyond the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on handling COVID-19 in a custodial setting.

“When we found there were standards to follow, we started following them under the law," attorney Robert Shannon said. “Now the plaintiffs appear to say ‘you can comply with the CDC guidelines, but not that one, we want you to exceed that one.’ ”

The judge said he will rule by Monday whether to issue such a preliminary injunction ordering the jail to implement a plan mandating social distancing. His temporary restraining order will remain in place until then, Kennelly said.

As of Wednesday, six detainees have died after contracting COVID-19 at the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. Another 231 inmates currently have the virus, 18 of whom are hospitalized. Hundreds of others have tested positive and have since recovered.

Also, 173 correctional officers who work at the jail are currently positive for COVID-19. One officer has died of the disease, the sheriff’s office said.

Officials with the Chicago Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control toured the jail complex last week, Miller, the jail’s assistant director, testified. They were stunned by what they saw, he said — in a good way.

“One of them told me, ‘I can’t believe how well you guys are doing,’ ” Miller testified. “It was phenomenal.”

But an expert for the plaintiffs, Dr. Homer Venters, testified that the sheriff has failed to implement a cohesive plan to curtail COVID-19, fallen short in identifying high-risk detainees and only spottily enforced social distancing amid inmates and staff.

Venters, who previously oversaw medical care in jails in New York, said it was particularly worrisome that guards at Cook County Jail continue to wear masks around their necks or on their head instead of covering their mouth and nose.

Dart has repeatedly defended his response and said he was “ahead of the curve” in recognizing the dangers the growing pandemic in a jail setting. To help alleviate overcrowding, Dart said he’s been working hard with stakeholders to release detainees who are medically vulnerable or accused of nonviolent offenses.

As of Thursday, the inmate population at Cook County Jail had dipped to just below 4,200 — its lowest mark in decades.

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©2020 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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