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Man who contracted coronavirus at Cook County Jail: ‘I really thought I was going to die’

The Albany Park man was days away from completing his 90-day sentence for aggravated DUI when he became one of the first detainees to test positive for COVID-19.

A man escaped Cook County Jail May 2, 2020, in a discharge tunnel.
“I just don’t see how you can stop it now that it’s started,” said the former Cook County Jail detainee. “We just figured we were all going to get it. I was just hoping to get out before it hit. I barely made it.”
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Albany Park man ended up in Cook County jail in December when reports of the virulent flu-like illness in China first made headlines. As he served out a 90-day sentence for an aggravated DUI, coronavirus was not on the top of his mind.

As weeks wore on, shelter-in-place orders shut down businesses and altered the rhythm of life on the outside. Inside, there were only the snippets of information on TV but soon, jail visits were canceled and incoming detainees spent a week in quarantine before joining the others.

Then on March 23, the Albany Park man and an 18-year-old detainee became the first two people who tested positive for COVID-19 inside the jail complex. By Monday — a week later — that total climbed to 101 detainees and 12 jail employees.

“It was like Disneyland for coronavirus,” said the 42-year-old man, who was released from jail last week and is now self-quarantining at home. “I didn’t bring it in. And once it’s in, it’s going to go crazy.”

The man, who asked the Chicago Sun-Times not to use his name, was housed in the Residential Treatment Unit, where low-risk offenders with medical issues or in treatment programs, spent their days snapping down dominoes and playing cards. At night, they slept in a single, dormitory style room, with beds roughly two feet apart.

As the days went on, a sense of fatalism reigned among the detainees and staff; COVID-19 was coming to the jail. One guard in the former detainee’s section of the jail, 3-C, even started answering the phone saying, “Three-Corona.”

Three days before his diagnosis was announced to the media, the man saw his neighboring detainee in bed, flushed and in pain. The 57-year-old man, who has sleep apnea and had reported flu-like symptoms earlier, was taken to the jail’s Cermak Hospital.

The guards then returned to take the Albany Park man’s temperature. He was at 102. The man was then taken to an isolation cell at Cermak where he spent the next three days. Nurses took swabs of his nose and throat when he arrived. “I could see [nurses] changing out their masks and gowns as soon as they left me. I was scared, like ‘What is this thing I got, man?’” he said.

The Albany Park man was a few days shy of completing his sentence when his lawyer petitioned to have him released because of his diagnosis and asthma and sleep apnea.

His bunkmate was denied bond last week during court-ordered reassessment hearings designed to reduce the jail population in the wake of the pandemic. He doesn’t know if the older man had also tested positive for coronavirus.

“I really thought I was going to die. That’s when I started to feel a little crazy,” the Albany Park man said, noting that his symptoms were relatively mild.

When he left jail, the man was surprised that he was placed in a holding area with other detainees. He balked at getting into a crowded elevator with guards and detainees.

He said for weeks starting in February — after a detainee used a bar of soap in a sock to beat his cellmate to death — bar soaps issued weekly to inmates were replaced with packets of liquid soap.

Sheriff Tom Dart, who joined Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle Friday to tout efforts taking place at the jail to combat the spread of coronavirus, angrily denied similar claims raised by jail advocates. Detainees have always received their ration of soap, and can ask for more if they run out, sheriff’s spokesman Matt Walberg also told the Sun-Times.

To prepare for a surge in the number of sick detainees, a former bootcamp has been converted to an isolation area that can house up to 500 inmates, and the county purchased tents to create even more space if needed, Dart has said. The jail population, which has hovered around 5,600 for the last year or so, dipped to a record-low of 4,812 Monday due to the reassessment hearings that have sent hundreds of low-risk inmates home on bond.

The Albany Park man has been watching the news steadily since his release and can only assume those sick beds Dart mentioned will be needed.

“I just don’t see how you can stop it now that it’s started,” he said. “We just figured we were all going to get it. I was just hoping to get out before it hit. I barely made it.”