Cook County Jail was one of the nation’s largest COVID-19 hot spots last spring. It’s worse now

Last week 370 detainees tested positive for the virus, according to data from the sheriff’s office, surpassing the previous high from April.

SHARE Cook County Jail was one of the nation’s largest COVID-19 hot spots last spring. It’s worse now
Masked detainees sit inside the Cook County Jail.

Masked detainees sit inside the Cook County Jail.

Cook County sheriff’s office

The number of detainees testing positive for the coronavirus at the Cook County Jail has soared to levels not seen since cases there last peaked in the spring, when it saw one of the largest outbreaks of confirmed cases of any location in the country.

Twenty-three detainees at the jail tested positive for the virus on Nov. 1, according to data from the sheriff’s office. Just over a month later, the jail set a new record for cases on Dec. 7, with 370.

That’s even higher than the previous peak, 307, on April 10.

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The drastic increase in little more than a month illustrates just how difficult a task it is to control the virus’ spread inside correctional facilities and how quickly cases can rise.

It’s the situation Sheriff Tom Dart — who himself tested positive last month — warned about recently as he stood outside the jail and urged the public to take measures including wearing masks, socially distancing and remaining home as much as possible.

Releasing more detainees through alternatives to incarceration, such as home monitoring, would be the quickest way to bring cases down again — to protect not only detainees but also the community at large, advocates and public officials say.

However, previous attempts to do so have been met with criticism that inmates being released were contributing to spikes in crime, which sources said has made it difficult this fall to take the same action.

A return to spring levels

In April, county officials brought the facility’s population down from about 5,500 in February to around 4,000 detainees — its lowest level on record — mostly through releasing detainees determined to be a low risk to public safety and those with health risks.

Five new areas of the jail’s sprawling campus in Little Village were also opened to house detainees. Coupled with the lower population, it allowed the sheriff’s office to move 66% of detainees into single cells and socially distance detainees in its dormitory-style housing areas.

The county also started doing widespread testing — 40,000 so far — and made masks and hygiene products widely available. New detainees are tested for the virus at intake and quarantined for 14 days before they are tested again — and isolated if they are positive.

The sheriff’s office has said the high number of infections in the spring that led to the jail being named a hot spot was the result of an aggressive effort to test detainees ahead of many other facilities. Other jails around the country have seen higher caseloads in the months since.

A graph shows a timeline of coronavirus infections at Cook County Jail.

Tracking coronavirus cases at the Cook County Jail.

Cook County sheriff’s office

Those efforts worked, public heath officials say.

The number of detainees testing positive for the virus fell from the April high to only a few dozen throughout the summer months.

“The depopulation measures initiated during the spring surge were critical in containing the virus at the jail,” said Jesus M. Estrada, chief operating officer of Cermak Health Services, which provides health care to the jail.

But at the same time, the jail’s population was steadily rising again, records show, and they have since reached levels last seen in February.

Currently, only 38% of detainees are being housed in single cells, according to Brad Curry, chief of staff for the sheriff’s office said.

“The population being up has definitely made our job more difficult,” Curry said. “You go from a dormitory with 14 [detainees] up to 34 ... it makes distancing and isolation more difficult.”

The sheriff’s office also instituted a new mandate this week that requires correctional officers be tested for the virus before they can return to work if they have potentially been exposed, Curry said.

Detainees at the Cook County Jail are seated apart while using the phones.

Detainees at the Cook County Jail are seated apart while using the phones.

Cook County sheriff’s office

‘It takes time’

Even though there has been talk that jail detainees around the country should be prioritized to receive COVID-19 vaccines, nothing has been finalized, and a rollout will take time. In the meantime, Public Defender Amy Campanelli says efforts to depopulate the jail must be made again.

“The jail’s population needs to be reduced to keep the community safe,” Campanelli said. “We’re not giving [detainees] a break, they still have to fight their cases, they can just do it from outside.”

In March, her office filed a motion to review bail for detainees that met criteria in seven categories, including those with medical conditions, pregnant women, nonviolent offenders and detainees eligible for probation, which led to the review of thousands of cases for potential release.

Campanelli has continued to file motions to review bonds for detainees, “but I cannot force the judges to release them. I cannot force the state’s attorney’s office to agree to the release.”

A spokeswoman for Chief Judge Tim Evans said his office has provided a list of inmates to “determine which detainees may be eligible” for release. The state’s attorney’s office also agreed that the number of inmates awaiting trial should be diminished — regardless of the pandemic — as a part of overall bail reform.

But several sources familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named as to not hurt discussions, said a sticking point has been backlash stemming from the civil unrest and increased crime that took place over the summer — particularly after criticism from Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown.

And even if all sides agree more prisoners should be let go, “it takes time to do that,” Campanelli said.

Transfers to state prisons slows

To start, the Illinois Department of Corrections could accept the transfer of the more than 450 people who should be in their custody anyways, the sheriff’s office said.

Transfers to prisons from jails were halted last spring by state order to prevent the spread of the virus between facilities, but have since resumed, albeit at significantly reduced levels.

IDOC is currently accepting about 50-60 people each week from the jail, according to Curry, down from an average of about 400 people a week before the pandemic. In October, IDOC acting director Rob Jeffreys told lawmakers that the state’s prison population was at its lowest level since the 1990s.

Asked why IDOC isn’t accepting more detainees from Cook County, a spokeswoman said “intakes are scheduled based on space availability, quarantine requirements and COVID-19 test results.”

Advocates push for action

Advocates say the situation is dire.

“The sense of urgency we were seeing [in the spring] just isn’t there now,” said Alexa Van Brunt, an attorney with Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center Clinic who sued the sheriff’s department earlier this year to release detainees.

Public officials “have been watching the jail population go up all summer,” Van Brunt said. “They should have been taking action all along.”

As of Nov. 30, 529 people were being held at the jail because they couldn’t afford to post $5,000 in bond or less, said Sarah Staudt, an attorney with the nonprofit Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.

Staudt also cited 265 people held solely on a misdemeanor charge, or the 106 people who have been held in the jail for more than a year on Class 3 and lower felony charges — and would likely be sentenced to little if any prison time even if they are eventually convicted — as being likely candidates for release.

“This is a complex problem, but we know how to do it,” Staudt said. “We did it in the spring, and I’m sure that saved lives.

“It’s past time for stakeholders to move on this.”

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