Hacked emails show Lightfoot’s private concerns about releasing jail detainees during pandemic

The mayor worried that detainees released from the jail could drive crime or spikes in COVID cases and sought to connect detainees with city services.

SHARE Hacked emails show Lightfoot’s private concerns about releasing jail detainees during pandemic
On April 7, 2020, dozens of protesters drove around Cook County Jail and the Leighton Criminal Courthouse demanding the mass release of detainees due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 7, 2020, dozens of protesters drove around Cook County Jail and the Leighton Criminal Courthouse demanding the mass release of detainees due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was fearful last spring that Cook County Jail detainees released to ease crowding in response to the coronavirus pandemic would contribute to a spike in violence as well as the spread of coronavirus.

“We have great concern that this population are both drivers of violence and victims,” Lightfoot wrote staff on July 3, according to an email included in a trove of hacked files posted online last month by the nonprofit activist group Distributed Denial of Secrets.

She also worried whether Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office would be able to track the spike in detainees placed on electronic monitoring.

“As we have discussed, the 4000 individuals out on electronic monitoring, right now get no services and are not being monitored,” Lightfoot wrote.

But the mayor’s fears of a spike in crime attributable to the detainees released on bond or monitoring was based on anecdotal evidence. The hacked emails show she was briefed on three released detainees accused of committing other offenses while on bond, but officials noted in another memo there was no comprehensive data to support her fears.

While the mayor’s office has declined to answer questions about the hacked emails, the sheriff’s office says it shares some of the mayor’s concerns.

“There has long been agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and Mayor’s Office that electronic monitoring is not a panacea to preventing new crimes and that there are too many individuals facing violent charges placed on the program by judges,” the sheriff’s office said in an emailed statement.

At the time the mayor’s office was debating what to do, many prisoners rights groups pushed for the release of inmates, saying it was inhumane to expose detainees who had not been convicted of crimes to the potentially deadly coronavirus.

The jail had been an early hotspot with hundreds of positive cases. Between March and mid-July 2020 when positive cases fell significantly at the jail, seven detainees had died from complications of COVID-19, as well as three correctional officers and a sheriff’s deputy.

While the emails show the mayor’s concerns about health conditions in the jail, Lightfoot opposed the wholesale release of detainees.

In an email, Lightfoot suggested the city get involved in a lawsuit filed by the law firm Loevy and Loevy and Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center that sought the widespread release of detainees from the jail.

“We should seek to intervene or file an amicus” brief, Lightfoot wrote to staff on April 8, after the lawsuit was filed. “Many of the people in the jail are violent offenders, Dart has taken many steps to help decompress his dorms, etc. Obviously, we should care about the outcome of this lawsuit because the vast majority of the detainees are city residents and the burden of release will fall on us and Cook County Hospital and releasing sick patients makes no sense.”

The city subsequently filed an amicus brief to Judge Matthew Kennelly warning the mass release “threatens to consume the resources of the city,” and laid out may of the concerns the mayor had expressed about public health and safety in her emails, which were marked “confidential.”

Kennelly ultimately rejected ordering the mass release of detainees but ordered other measures to stem the virus’ transmission at the jail.

Privacy concerns hamper effort

The mayor’s office also asked the county to give prior notice and contact information for anyone being released but were hampered by privacy concerns, noting in a another leaked briefing that detainees who haven’t been convicted of a crime yet cannot be mandated to provide personal information.

“This effort was unsuccessful because County did not feel they could release the names and contact information of those being released on privacy reasons unless the person consented,” the mayor’s office wrote.

The sheriff’s office said it releases detainees based on court orders and does not usually get advance notice itself. It also cited the Personal Information Protection Act as preventing them releasing some of the information the city had sought.

“The Sheriff’s Office worked closely with the City of Chicago to identify services for those released during the pandemic,” the sheriff’s office said. “Regardless, the Sheriff’s Office has worked through these inherent barriers to develop an effective system that helps ensure individuals leaving custody have a place to go that is considerate of the dangers posed by the pandemic.”

Lightfoot wanted to connect detainees with services

The emails show another primary concern of the mayor was how to connect detainees with city services, including housing and mental health treatment, and prevent people who might have been exposed to the virus from spreading it.

Ideas floated in staff emails included putting detainees in hotels to quarantine or connecting them with shelters equipped to house those who had tested positive for the virus, as well as hospitals.

“I recognize that this will not be cost free, but it is costing us now, in other more indirect ways,” Lightfoot wrote.

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