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Halting the spread of COVID-19 at Cook County Jail is our moral responsibility

The number of detainees should be reduced further and faster. Those released must be tested and monitored.

Cook County Jail.
Though the prison population has been reduced and sanitation improved, Cook County Jail remains a major source of coronavirus infections.
Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

We remain troubled by the spread of the coronavirus at Cook County Jail, where a corrections officer and at least three detainees have died from COVID-19 and another 185 guards and 215 detainees have been infected.

The county jail remains a hot spot for the virus, and the clock is ticking toward a greater crisis.

Nobody should pretend there are any easy answers here, and we can’t agree with those who essentially have called for the jail to be emptied out. There are plenty of people in the jail who, for reasons of public safety, can’t be released or moved to less secure settings.

But we urge county law enforcement officials to pick up the pace in what they’re already doing — reducing the jail population in a selective way while improving protections for those who must remain locked up. This approach has reduced the number of detainees from 5,600 to about 4,200 since the pandemic began.

Those inmates who are released must be tested and monitored to reduce the chances of the virus being spread across the city and county by those who are freed.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart has used the freed-up jail space to move detainees farther apart in a bid to slow the virus. Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly ruled that Dart must provide inmates with enough soap, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, plus prompt testing of at-risk inmates.

Dart is working against a clock, as he well knows. Jails and prisons, crowded places in which frequent hand washing and other sanitary measures are difficult to enforce, practically invite viruses to sweep through.

Consider Ohio’s Marion prison, a facility with a smaller population than Cook County Jail. Officials reported this week that 1,950 of the prison's 2,500 inmates — an astounding 80 percent of those behind bars — are infected and one inmate has died. A third of Marion’s workforce has tested positive for the virus and a guard has died.

The sweep of the coronavirus at the prison has been so complete that the Ohio National Guard has been called in to build new structures to house and treat prisoners.

The potential danger could be even greater at Cook County Jail, which has a far more transient population compared to a state prison, and where thousands of employees come and go each working shift.

Judge Kennelly declined to order a mass release of detainees from the jail, but he stressed the moral challenge.

People are jailed there “pending determination of their guilt or innocence,” Kennelly wrote, “and by doing so the government takes on an obligation to protect their health and safety.”

We must meet that obligation.

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