A federal court ruled that the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has failed to protect detainees at Cook County Jail from the spread of the coronavirus and issued an injunction, however, the court declined to order the convening of a three-judge court for the release of detainees.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ordered [PDF] Sheriff Thomas Dart to develop a policy to avoid “group housing” or “double-celling,” holding two detainees in one cell.

Dart also instructed to expand COVID-19 testing in the facility in Chicago, increase enforcement of social distancing, and provide greater access to face masks and “sanitation supplies.”

The ruling put into place measures Dart has previously refused to implement, including  expanding mandatory testing and barring dangerous congregate-style dormitory housing and double cells,” declared Locke Bowman, the executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center.

Bowman added, “While the Sheriff has maintained this lawsuit is a waste of time, today’s ruling proves that judicial injunction was absolutely necessary to ensure the protection of detainees’ health.”

In early April, a class action lawsuit was filed for emergency relief for detainees because the Sheriff’s Office “failed in its constitutional responsibility” to “provide reasonable protection” from the virus.

There are more than 4,000 detainees confined at the Cook County Jail. Weeks ago, the outbreak at the facility was deemed one of the largest coronavirus case clusters in the United States.

According to the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC), as of April 26, six detainees have died from COVID-19 and 461 detainees have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The facility says 232 detainees are “no longer positive and are being monitored at a recovery facility at the jail.” Plus, 409 detainees have tested negative for COVID-19, which means despite the outbreak less than 20 percent have been tested.

As far as staff, more than 158 correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19 and one correctional officer died. That means, in total, over 800 people associated with the facility have tested positive.

Judge Matthew Kennelly determined it was “objectively unreasonable” to continue the practice of “group housing” or “double-celling,” given the “immediate and significant risk” to detainees’ lives.

However, Kennelly granted multiple exemptions for persons in tiers or dormitories who are under “quarantine following a positive test”; persons who tested positive for the coronavirus and are under “medical observation”; persons who tested positive for the coronavirus and are “recovering”; persons with documentation from a medical professional to show “single-celling poses a risk of suicide or self-harm”; persons in a dormitory unit that is “at less than fifty percent capacity”; and detainees “committed” to a “group housing unit that is equipped for medical or medical or mental health treatment, but only if there is not available housing or medical units that permit full social distancing.”

It is unclear to what extent the Sheriff’s Office may be able to exploit these exemptions to avoid moving detainees.

The judge instructed Dart to require “prompt coronavirus testing” of any detainees who “exhibit symptoms” of “consistent” with the coronavirus,” and “at medically appropriate times,” detainees “exposed to others who have exhibited those symptoms or have tested positive for coronavirus.”

According to detainees, many were held at intake in “bullpens,” where “numerous detainees were held together for extended periods in a crowded cell.”

The judge ordered the Sheriff’s Office to keep avoiding the use of bullpens or multiple-person cells for new detainees “awaiting intake.”

Furthermore, Dart was instructed to provide soap or hand sanitizer to “all detainees in quantities sufficient to permit them to frequently clean their hands,” as well as “sanitation supplies sufficient and adequate to enable all staff and detainees to regularly sanitize surfaces and objects on which the virus could be present, including in all areas occupied or frequented by more than one person (such as two-person cells, as well as bathrooms, showers, and other surfaces in common areas).”

Face masks must also be provided to all detainees in quarantine, including anyone who may have shown symptoms consistent with COVID-19. 

Kennelly was very clear in outlining why the court could not wait for the Sheriff’s Office to take further action, even though they had adopted some social distancing measures.

…Without additional measures to expand and enforce social distancing and the continuation of measures aimed at enhancing sanitation of surfaces within the Jail and otherwise curbing the spread of coronavirus among detained persons, some of the class members will contract the virus. If they contract coronavirus, class members— particularly those over the age of sixty-five or with certain preexisting health conditions—risk severe health consequences, including death. These grave risks to health are not an insignificant possibility for the class members, all of whom are live in the Jail’s congregate environment, where the coronavirus has been spreading for weeks and where detained persons—even those who sleep their own cells—share spaces like common areas and showers…

On March 27, the Chicago Department of Public Health recommended screening and the classification of detainees based on the level of risk associated with the coronavirus. They also suggested officials consider the “mass release of inmates to decompress the jail for urgent public health reasons.”

Between April 9 and April 17, more than 300 detainees were placed on “electronic home monitoring.” Yet, according to the Sheriff’s Office, the program was “extended to its outside limits, or nearly so, in light of the apparent exhaustion of the program vendor’s supply of monitoring equipment.”

Sharlyn Grace, the executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said they will continue to demand the “mass release of people from Cook County Jail in the name of public health.”

The narrative being put forward by Sheriff Dart is not based in reality and continues to put people at risk of further harm,” Grace concluded. “The only way to prevent more deaths is through decarceration.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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