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Federal detainees want judge to order COVID-19 measures at downtown jail

The detainees’ lawyers say “many [MCC] residents do not trust the vaccine, or are understandably mistrustful of receiving it from MCC” following two outbreaks there.

Inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center hold up signs asking for help during the coronavirus pandemic on April 20, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Federal detainees hope to convince a judge to order COVID-19 treatment and prevention measures at Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center as part of a lawsuit that has offered the most insight yet into the way the downtown federal lock-up has handled the pandemic.

Their lawyers say they fear a third wave of coronavirus at the jail. They point to problems with masks and inadequate COVID-19 testing. And they say “there is no evidence” the jail has “developed a plan to rapidly vaccinate the entire residential population.” They allege that MCC staff members have even fed skepticism about the vaccines.

Government lawyers have sought to end the lawsuit on technical grounds, arguing the detainees who brought the lawsuit “took no action to seek a remedy within the Bureau of Prisons during the course of the year that has since elapsed.”

Meanwhile, a Department of Justice inspector general report published late last month found that the MCC “complied with CDC guidance and BOP policy directives for social distancing and quarantine” and “had adequate resources for sanitation.” But it also said the MCC’s design “created challenges for social distancing and separating inmates with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.”

Cross-section view of the Chicago MCC.
U.S. District Court records

The DOJ inspector general report also revealed the first positive COVID-19 test of an inmate at the MCC occurred April 8, 2020 — six days before the public learned of such a test result there.

A Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman said Wednesday it does not comment on pending litigation or legal proceedings. The detainees who filed the lawsuit are represented in part by lawyers from the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU.

The detainees’ lawyers sought a preliminary injunction Tuesday as part of a proposed class-action lawsuit filed in January and overseen by U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall. They want the judge to order the jail to develop vaccine education and implementation programs, implement regular COVID-19 testing, enforce and support mask-wearing, and seek additional advice from health officials.

Online BOP data showed Wednesday that 250 inmates at the MCC have so far been fully inoculated under its COVID-19 vaccination program. More than 530 people are being held at the MCC, according to the detainees’ Tuesday court filings. Among the staff, 130 people have been fully inoculated, the BOP reported online.

No MCC inmates are currently positive for COVID-19, according to an update of that online data Wednesday afternoon. But there have so far been two outbreaks of the virus there, records show. Last spring, prosecutors reported that 133 MCC detainees had confirmed COVID-19 cases. Then, last December, 277 MCC inmates tested positive, according to the DOJ inspector general’s report.

That report found that, while the MCC complied with the BOP’s social distancing and quarantine directives through lockdowns and changes in its operations, social distancing was particularly difficult in two open dormitory units. It said staff built floor-to-ceiling plexiglass walls to separate the units, but that work did not begin until April 13, 2020, five days after the first positive test of an inmate for COVID-19 and roughly a month after the pandemic took hold outside the jail.

Photos of barriers built to aid with social distancing in open dormitories at the Chicago MCC in spring 2020.
Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General

Meanwhile, the detainees’ lawyers say “many [MCC] residents do not trust the vaccine, or are understandably mistrustful of receiving it from MCC” following the two outbreaks. One of the plaintiffs, Shandall Thomas, claims he and other men on his floor were offered the vaccine in January if they were deemed to be high-risk. Roughly 10 out of 100 detainees there signed up and received it, he said in court records. He said he declined it then because he was worried about the side effects. His lawyers say he has since received his first dose.

Another plaintiff detainee, Ricky Price, claims that an MCC staff member suggested Price have his blood drawn before taking the vaccine to test his blood type with the vaccine. The staff member also said he did not want the vaccine but was required to get it, Price alleged.

The detainees’ lawyers claim that not enough MCC staff members are getting vaccinated themselves. They also say MCC staff members have been seen wearing inadequate face coverings, like scarves, or no face coverings at all.