Cook County Jail director defends handling of COVID-19 outbreak

Lawyers for prisoners say the rate of infection inside jail is three times higher than for the rest of the state.

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A discarded surgical mask lies on the sidewalk outside the fence at the Cook County Jail. Lawyers for prisoners have sued Sheriff Tom Dart, claiming that officials have not done enough to slow a COVID-19 outbreak.

Andy Grimm|Sun-Times

Lawyers for Sheriff Tom Dart on Thursday defended the handling of a COVID-19 outbreak inside the walls of the Cook County Jail, with one of Dart’s top deputies saying Chicago health department and federal officials toured the jail complex last week and were “very complimentary.”

But advocates for the 4,200 prisoners currently housed in the sprawling West Side jail complex, who have yet to be permitted inside the jail since the the first coronavirus infections were reported, called on a federal judge to mandate the release of prisoners and allow outside inspection.

After a four-hour hearing, conducted by video conference, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly said he intends to rule by Monday on whether to issue a temporary restraining order that could require the release of inmates at risk for serious complications from COVID-19. The judge Thursday extended his two-week-old order that required the sheriff to provide additional soap and cleansers for all detainees and staff, and required all inmates known to have been exposed to the virus to wear surgical masks.

So far, 448 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-March, including six who died of complications from the infection. More than 300 jail staff have contracted COVID-19, which last week claimed the life of corrections officer Sheila Rivera. The sheriff’s office is also awaiting testing results to see if coronavirus was a factor in the death last week of corrections officer Antoine Stewart, 38.

At Thursday’s hearing, Michael Miller, director of jail operations, thumbed through a thick binder of reports under questioning from lawyers for the sheriff and recounted new protocols the sheriff’s office has adopted amid shifting advice from public health officials on precautions to take to avoid infection.

As the jail population has dropped after more than a month of more liberal use of recognizance bonds by the courts and declining arrests, Miller said jail officials have reopened unused tiers of the jail to allow more detainees to be put into single cells.

City health officials have collaborated with jail staff on the changing policies, and toured the jail with investigators from the federal Centers for Disease Control last week, Miller said.

“One of them who had been working with cruise ships ... said, ‘We couldn’t get this far in a month with a cruise ship as what you guys have done in a few weeks,’” Miller said.

In her closing argument, attorney Sarah Grady noted that the rate of infection inside the jail was three times higher than the rest of the state, and that Miller had conceded that there were areas of the jail where inmates still were bunking in crowded, dormitory-style rooms, where staff were unable to enforce social distancing.

“Social distancing is absolutely necessary to prevent the spread of this disease,” she said. “And you can’t just do some social distancing. It can’t be a partway solution.”

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