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Advocates call for inspection of Cook County Jail amid coronavirus outbreak

Jail officials will give every detainee with symptoms a surgical mask, but say they only have enough supplies to do that for roughly a week.

A sign pleading for help hangs in a window at the Cook County jail complex on April 09, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. With nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 having been diagnosed among the inmates and employees, the jail is nations largest-known source of coronavirus infections.
Detainees scrawled messages on the windows of Cook County Jail, as hundreds of inmates have taken ill with COVID-19.
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Attorneys representing detainees in a lawsuit over Cook County Jail’s response to the coronavirus pandemic pressed a federal judge Tuesday to allow an expert review of conditions “on the ground” after Sheriff Thomas Dart announced new protocols to slow the spread of the virus.

In his report to U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly, Dart outlined increases in testing — using new Abbott Labs rapid test kits — and said that infected inmates will be issued surgical masks. Dart, however, noted that the jail would burn through existing supplies of masks within a week unless orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state Department of Public Health were filled.

Kennelly Tuesday requested additional briefs from both sides before making a ruling on the detainees’ request for additional emergency oversight of the jail. Another teleconference hearing is set for Wednesday in federal court.

Dart’s report also says while jail officials have been providing ample supplies of soap for detainees — a frequent complaint of inmate advocates in recent weeks — soap has been used as a weapon inside the jail.

“The sheriff is entitled to weigh whether inmates get supplies and security issues,” said Alexa Van Brunt, an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center who is representing the detainees. “It is concerning to us that sheriff could say that detainees that are at risk of exposure [to COVID-19] are not entitled to get soap.”

Hours after the hearing, Dart’s office said three jail guards were injured Tuesday morning in an attack by a detainee in the maximum security tier who used bars of soap stuffed into socks as a weapon. One guard was hospitalized in the attack, Dart’s office said. During the incident, that detainee allegedly grabbed the keys from a guard and gave it to another detainee who let himself and another detainee out. In February, a detainee was beaten to death by his cellmate who allegedly use soap in a sock during the attack.

Meanwhile, Tuesday, Van Brunt noted that the sheriff’s office had not posted an update on the number of COVID-19 cases at the jail until Tuesday morning, breaking with the near-daily reports posted on the its website since March 23. More than a week’s worth of updates also were removed from the site, making it more difficult for the public to track the number of infections.

A spokesman for Dart said the sheriff’s office has posted updated numbers of detainees and staff who have tested positive for the virus, and has recently begun separating the number of inmates who have recovered as well as new cases in those reports.

As of Tuesday evening, 326 detainees tested positive for COVID-19, including the three detainees who died after contracting the virus. There have also been 196 correctional officers who have tested positive.

The jail, which held more than 11,000 inmates as recently as the early 2000s, now has a population 4,348, in part due to efforts to have low-risk inmates released during the COVID-19 pandemic.