Coronavirus cases rising at Chicago’s federal high-rise jail

The Bureau of Prisons has repeatedly reported lower numbers of inmate coronavirus cases to the public than local officials on the ground.

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A cross can be seen hanging in the window of a cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, 71 W. Van Buren St., in the Loop, Wednesday afternoon, April 15, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

For weeks, Chicago’s downtown federal high-rise jail appeared to be keeping the coronavirus at bay.

Only a handful of staff members at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on West Van Buren had tested positive for the coronavirus since the outbreak began, according to official numbers. And no reports emerged of detainees with the virus — until Tuesday.

Now, for the first time, the coronavirus appears to be spreading among the MCC’s more than 600 inmates. Though the number of confirmed cases there remains low, the virus has been known to spread rapidly, and numbers tracked by the Chicago Sun-Times have risen quickly.

The numbers were gathered from court filings by prosecutors and local defense attorneys, as well as from an MCC union official. Those on-the-ground sources have largely been in agreement, and they have reported higher numbers of positive cases than the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

For example, MCC union leader Kevin Lasley on Friday afternoon said 12 inmates and 14 staff members had tested positive for the virus. Around the same time, the BOP said 10 inmates and 11 staff members had tested positive. It didn’t report Lasley’s numbers until Sunday. By then, prosecutors said the number of staff cases had risen to 15.

Because some workers were also awaiting test results last week, Lasley said as many as 22 people had at one point been removed from the already stretched-thin staff.

“We have a dangerous virus in an environment where social distancing is quite literally impossible, no matter what they say to the contrary,” John Murphy, executive director of the Federal Defender Program in the Northern District of Illinois, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “So it would seem that efforts should be made by everyone to reduce the population of people in those facilities pretty dramatically. And that hasn’t happened so far.”

A BOP spokesperson said the numbers it releases publicly “are based on the most recently available confirmed lab results involving open cases” from across the agency. The BOP has declined to say how many MCC inmates have been tested for the coronavirus.

“The Bureau of Prisons has taken, and will continue to take, aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff and inmates, as well as visitors and members of the public,” BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson wrote in an email. “The director has made clear that this response is the Bureau’s top priority.”

The number of coronavirus cases at the MCC remains considerably lower than other lockups in Illinois, including Stateville Correctional Center, which most recently reported 122 inmate cases, or the Cook County Jail, which most recently reported 171 cases among detainees.

Federal court filings from prosecutors and defense attorneys have opened the widest window into the MCC since the pandemic began. Prosecutors revealed the first positive test by a single inmate Tuesday. The BOP reported the same number later that day. But the BOP did not change its tally Wednesday, when defense attorneys began to report the number had jumped to six, including one inmate whose situation was said to be “precarious.”

On Thursday, prosecutors said two of the six inmates had been hospitalized, which might explain why the BOP that afternoon reported only four MCC inmates had the coronavirus. But that same afternoon, Lasley said he’d heard of nine cases at the MCC, a number confirmed Friday morning by prosecutors. They said the number had been given to them by the MCC’s legal counsel Thursday, the same day the BOP told the public the number was only four.

MCC inmates’ family members are worried. Samantha Erdell said her 36-year-old fiancee, Kevin Conway, was hospitalized with a low blood count last year while serving a two-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. She said she’s wondered about sanitary conditions at the facility and, if Conway gets the virus, whether he can beat it with a compromised immune system.

She said he is held on a floor with 60 people who share one urinal, four toilets, four showers and four sinks.

In a filing in a separate case, a defense attorney wrote that MCC inmates are given a single cloth mask “which must be continually worn, without proper sanitizing between each use.” The attorney also wrote that inmates are allowed to shower three times a week, for five minutes at a time.

Erdell wondered when speaking to the Sun-Times whether those showers were being cleaned. Lasley said they are. He is the president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3652, representing 150 or so employees at the MCC and an office overseeing halfway house inmates. He said a team cleans the showers after every group of inmates leaves them, and he said the facility is disinfected three times a day.

Federal prosecutors have largely argued against inmate release, stressing the steps taken by MCC staff. They said visits have been suspended, new detainees are being screened, hand sanitizer and signs touting proper hygiene have been posted, at-risk inmates are being quarantined and, as of April 10, all MCC staff members and inmates are wearing face masks.

“I think that, as long as the staff continues to do what they need to do, we’ll do a decent job of keeping it under control,” Lasley said.

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