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Chicago Mayor Pressures Judge To Release Fewer Detainees As Coronavirus Spreads In Cook County Jail

As the coronavirus spreads at Cook County Jail in Illinois, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other mayors in the county urged a judge to factor in “public health considerations” as emergency bond hearings for detainees are held.

Cook County Jail is one of the largest single-site county pretrial detention facilities in the United States. On March 22, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office announced that a correctional officer tested positive for the coronavirus or COVID-19.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said the officer worked for the jail’s Residential Treatment Unit, which is a “wing for inmates who need medical or mental health attention.” He also was at Cermak Hospital, the on-site medical center.

The following day the Sheriff’s Office announced two detainees at Cook County Jail tested positive for COVID-19. The detainees, who are 42 years-old and 18 years-old, were put in isolation units at Cermak Hospital on March 20, when they first exhibited “flu-like symptoms.”

Public defenders responded to the development with an urgent motion for the release of seven categories of detainees, according to the local NBC News affiliate.

The categories break down as follows: “older people or those with underlying health conditions, who are considered at higher risk of COVID-19; any pregnant women, those being confined on misdemeanor charges; those being held on felony charges which are probationable or non-violent; those who could be out on bail but can’t afford it; those confined over an arrest warrant or probation violation but who did not commit a violent crime; and those serving sentences who are eligible for release.”

Kim Foxx, the Cook County State’s Attorney, objected to releasing a group of detainees. Prosecutors pushed for individualized reviews. As public defenders signaled their agreement on March 23, Lightfoot and other local mayors sent a letter to pressure the judge into being more discriminatory when deciding which detainees to release.

“We urge each individualized bond determination to be exercised with care,” the letter declares [PDF]. “In these challenging times, and given the work that mayors all over Cook County are taking to keep our communities safe from the further spread of the virus, we urge that a public health screening be part of any release decision.”

“It would be wise to consider implementing certain protocols to ensure that detainees residing in a facility, where a known case has been detected are asymptomatic for a reasonable time prior to release in order to safeguard them and the public,” the letter adds. [Emphasis in the letter.]

Neither of these mayors are public health officials. They are elected politicians, who are worried about being held responsible for detainees who may be released. However, there does not appear to be a solid public health argument for not releasing detainees to prevent the spread of the virus in jails.

The Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) is a volunteer organization that advocates for an end to money bond and pretrial incarceration, especially in Cook County. As of 2019, CCBF paid “more than $1.5 million to secure the freedom of more than 280 people who otherwise would have remained incarcerated.”

The bond’s efforts contributed to a “marked drop in the number of people incarcerated in Cook County from 7,500 in September 2017 to roughly 5,750 as of October 2019.”

Organizers with CCBF have called for a mass release of detainees at Cook County Jail as the coronavirus crisis intensifies.

“There’s no reason to release questions about the validity or adequacy of those plans publicly other than to create political pressure that undermines release just as there’s increased momentum and support for more significant action,” CCBF executive director Sharlyn Grace argued.

Grace further contended, “People who are currently incarcerated and eligible to be released under these reviews, and who should be released under the reviews, [are] in the best position possible to maintain their health and prevent the spread by being in the community.”

People should not have their “release from incarceration slowed under some sort of public health measure.” They should not be “treated differently” than anyone in the community and “certainly not be punished” for testing positive for COVID-19.

Lightfoot and mayors in the area believe releasing detainees that are homeless individuals is unwise if they cannot be connected with “appropriate social service organizations.” The implication is that somehow by keeping them in detention they will be at less risk during the pandemic because they have access to “social services” in jail.

Yet, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), jails are not good places for providing health and social services. They repeatedly fail people who need medical care, and even worse, if individuals with coronavirus are put in isolation, that could exacerbate mental health problems they may have had before contracting the virus.

“Given that many people in local jails have health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to this new coronavirus, and simple precautions like social distancing are nearly impossible behind bars, it is vital that we release anyone from jail who doesn’t need to be there. For many, it will be a matter of life or death,” PPI’s Alexi Jones wrote.

Cermak Hospital does not only serve detainees at Cook County Jail. If authorities fail to act and the virus keeps spreading, that will impact the entire health system in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Both Cermak and Stroger hospitals on the southwest side of Chicago treat detainees at Cook County Jail.

“When you create a situation where you have a public health emergency at the county jail, the county hospital will have to pick up the slack,” said Sharone Mitchell, Jr, the director of the Illinois Justice Project. “There’s a spillover to poor Chicagoans, poor Cook County residents, who have to depend on those same hospitals.”

Mitchell further emphasized letting the virus spread in a facility, where you cannot social distance, presents a risk to the entire community.

Cook County public defender Amy Campanelli argued on March 23 that ventilation is poor at the jail. Detainees are kept in close quarters. They share cells and bathrooms. There are not enough sinks with soap. They do not have enough soap. So every detainee is vulnerable.

For organizers with CCBF, the central issue is that every day State’s Attorney’s Office drags its feet and every day that some mayor like Lightfoot applies pressure, which stalls action, is another day that the curve during the coronavirus pandemic grows steeper.

“Unless thousands of people are released, the inevitable exponential rise of COVID-19 infections in the jail will bring down the entire county’s health system,” Grace concluded. “Decarceration is required for social distancing. It is impossible to flatten the curve while maintaining mass criminalization and mass incarceration.”

“Cook County officials will have blood on their hands for dragging their feet over the last two weeks or more, when this inevitability came to light.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."