Latest NewsPrison Protest

Detainees Sue As Cook County Jail Becomes One Of Biggest COVID-19 Clusters In United States

Kenneth Foster is a 39-year-old detained at Cook County Jail in Chicago. He has stage 4 stomach cancer, sarcoidosis in his lungs, asthma, bronchitis, and high blood pressure.

According to a declaration filed in federal court [PDF], “Five or six people from Mr. Foster’s dorm have tested positive for COVID-19. So far, Mr. Foster is not exhibiting any symptoms and so he has not been tested.”

“The people who tested positive for the virus were removed from the dorm. Mr. Foster does not know what happened to them,” the declaration adds.

Foster is one of several plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that seeks emergency relief for detainees because Cook County has “failed in its constitutional responsibility” to “provide reasonable protection against the further spread” of the “deadly disease.”

The Chicago Community Bond Fund, Loevy & Loevy, a civil rights firm, Civil Rights Corps, and the MacArthur Justice Center urged Judge Matthew Kennelly to release vulnerable people from jail, or at the very least, transfer them to other facilities until the outbreak ends.

On March 6, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, with the support of various groups, demanded Cook County officials release detainees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Yet, one month later, there are more than 230 detainees who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Nearly 80 staff have tested positive as well.

There are 4,700 individuals detained in dual cell or dormitory quarters. As many as 1,500 detainees are in jail because they can’t afford to pay their bond.

The infection rate is so high that an average of one out of every 20 detainees has tested positive for COVID-19. Like the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, Cook County Jail has one of the biggest case clusters in the United States.

On April 5, Jeffery Pendleton, a 59 year-old black man, became the first person to die from the outbreak while incarcerated at Cook County.

“The jail has repeatedly failed and continues to fail to separate persons known to have been exposed to COVID-19 from other detainees,” according to the lawsuit. “Sanitation of surfaces and objects that are frequently touched by the infected and the not-yet-infected is non-existent.”

The lawsuit additionally argues, “Conditions violate applicable guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and ensure the continued rapid, uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 within the jail and beyond—because the jail is not and cannot be isolated from the larger community.”

Sean Alexander is 19 years old and has sickle cell anemia, yet he is not receiving medication for the disease. He is living in a two-person cell with a cellmate. They share a sink and toilet and have no cleaning supplies.

One resident in the same division as Alexander cut up shirts to use as masks, but the resident tested positive for COVID-19. Detainees had to quit using the “shirt masks.”

“Anyone with a temperature that was too high has been removed to quarantine,” however, Alexander has no idea where individuals who test positive are taken.

“[One] person who tested positive was removed from the deck, and jail staff threw out his belongings and moved his cellmate into a different cell with another person,” Alexander indicated. “That other person is now coughing, and jail staff have told him not to touch the remotes and to keep in his cell.”

The entire division where 24-year-old Christopher Zeigler resides is quarantined. He has MRSA and a “compromised immune system.” He is in a one-person cell in a division that is under lockdown. Detainees are allowed out of their cell for only three hours during the day.

Last week, when Zeigler and others refused to lock up because they wanted more time out of their cells and information on the jail’s response to the virus from staff, they were threatened with mace. A sheriff’s deputy said they would not be given a COVID-19 test, since they disobeyed an order.

Zeigler has apparently observed black mold in the shower area in his division.

Brandon Mathis, who is 26 year-old, was previously shot in his throat. It was reconstructed, and he has difficulty breathing. He had open heart surgery as a child and suffers from blood clots. However, according to the lawsuit, “he is not receiving medication.”

He lives with another detainee in a cell that has not been cleaned, despite the fact that two men in the division became sick with COVID-19. They were transferred to some unknown location.

“Two people tested positive for COVID-19 on the deck across from Mr. Mathis. Jail staff took the belongings of those individuals and threw them out, and then sanitized the cell,” the lawsuit states. “Mathis has not been tested for COVID-19, but he has started to feel sick. He feels hot and like he cannot breathe and suffers headaches.”

There are tiers in Cook County Jail that are packed with people, and new detainees continue to arrive in the middle of an outbreak.

In the division where Anthony Mays, a 38-year-old, lives, “each cell on his tier has two concrete beds, spaced two feet apart.” There are about 40 beds. Sick call slips were removed from the tier, which means if a detainee becomes ill they don’t have a “channel by which to alert health care.”

Many in Mays’ tier appear to be ill, and Mays does not feel safe.

A number of detainees were released by judges. But Steve Weil, an attorney with Loevy & Loevy, points out there was little transparency. Advocates do not know what medical considerations went into those decisions.

Weil cautioned against the idea that everyone who could be released by the judges was released in the past couple weeks. Many in the jail could walk out if they had money for bail.

A March 31 letter from staff revealed even more about the conditions at the jail. “Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor Cook County Health is conducting regular temperature checks on incarcerated people to identify those with symptoms of COVID-19.” There simply aren’t enough nurses for such checks.

“Without any infection control, these ‘quarantines’ are really just incubators of the infection and are rapidly spreading the disease,” the lawsuit declares.

The complaint additionally notes, “With so few medical staff, the existing health staff employees—i.e., those dealing with sick detainees—must travel all over the facility to carry out their duties, potentially spreading the illness from one division to another.”

“Indeed, to make matters worse, the March 31 letter reports that many of these employees do not have access to N95 masks, increasing their chances of infection and further raising the risk that they will infect other staff and incarcerated people, spreading the infection even further.”

Flonard Wrencher, who was detained at Cook County Jail, reacted, “We have people that’s in jail, who can’t get out and their lives are in danger. The living conditions in the county jail [are] not suitable for human beings. People are living like animals. And there is no such thing as social distancing, and in some places, people are squeezed together like sardines in a can.”

“The sleeping arrangements are far less than the required six feet. We are talking about non-convicted people, people who are still part of the community,” Wrencher said.

Tiffany, who has a son in the Cook County Jail, called the facility “today’s concentration camp” because people are “being held and confined without their right to due process under the Constitution. People are being detained and held on alleged charges and have not yet been proven guilty or innocent.”

She recently spent two hours outside the facility and spoke with several guards. Only one said he had enough sanitizer. One guard, who was asked if detainees had access to sanitizer, told her he had to look out for himself.

As of April 5, around 70 percent of deaths from the COVID-19 were black people.

Officials in Cook County, including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, have slowed the release of detainees by insisting detainees may be infected and spread the virus if they return to communities.

Alexa Van Brunt of the MacArthur Justice Center responded to this widespread notion.

“I’d push back on the premise that people released by the jail won’t abide by the stay-at-home order that is also in place for everyone in the state of Illinois,” Van Brunt said. “This is what protects the public in this case, which is that we’re all subject to this executive order in place on March 20 and that has since been extended.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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