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Cook County Sheriff Dart blasts letter alleging he failed to provide jail staff protective equipment

Dart fires back at lawyer’s claims that staff in frequent contact with inmates have not been provided with masks or other protective equipment.

A guard tower at the Cook County Jail.
The Cook County Jail is dealing with a coronavirus outbreak that has seen 221 inmates and 70 staff test positive for COVID-19.
Sun-Times file photo

In an angrily worded letter, Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart this weekend responded to allegations that his office has failed to provide proper training and equipment for officers working at the County Jail amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Dart called “irresponsible” a six-page letter from Marni Willenson, a lawyer who represents female jail guards and other staff in a lawsuit alleging the sheriff’s office has been slow to respond to widespread sexual harassment by inmates.

Willenson’s letter outlines anecdotes from some of her clients that jail staff are not provided with training on basic sanitation and hygiene practices, and that staff in frequent contact with inmates have not been provided with masks or other protective equipment.

Dart’s office responded Saturday to Willenson’s claims with its own letter. “In the middle of this crisis, to presume so much with so little support, is dangerous,” Dart’s letter reads.

He warned that it would undermine the chain of command inside the jail at this time.

“Your letter is irresponsible. You, in admitted ignorance, generate unreasonable fear during a viral pandemic instead of solving that fear through informative and complete decisions,” Dart’s letter reads.

As of Saturday, 220 inmates at the jail and 70 jail staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, up from a total of two positive tests two weeks ago. The jail complex on Friday, the most recent day for which statistics were available, was 4,711.

Willenson, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against Dart’s office still is pending, said she has been contacted by nearly 20 jail staff members working in different areas with complaints she says contradict public statements from Dart.

At a news conference last week alongside Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Dart said jail officials had been taking COVID-19 seriously since January and have been screening inmates and holding incoming inmates in segregation to contain the spread of the virus.

A former bootcamp has been converted into a hospital for sick inmates, and Dart said jail officials will isolate more inmates in single cells.

But Dart acknowledged that guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed several times and that there is no “playbook” for handling the outbreak.

But Willenson said her clients have complained to her that despite Dart’s public statements, supplies of hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies for jail staff are limited or absent, and that employees in frequent contact with inmates have not been provided with masks.

Staff in some roles last week were told by supervisors they could not wear masks that they provided themselves because it would “alarm the inmates,” Willenson said.

“There appears to be no rhyme or reason to who is getting access to masks or gowns, and the information that they are getting changes by the day,” Willenson said in an interview. “This is not about a lawsuit. This is about a moral obligation to respond to a public health crisis.”

Jail staff said as of Friday, they were allowed to wear masks, and that surgical masks were provided to an increased number of staff, though some reportedly was defective.

But several correctional officers who spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times on condition of anonymity said that precautions, such as taking staff members’ temperatures at the start of a shift, have been thwarted by defective or inadequate supplies.

On a recent shift, officers were allegedly given disposable “thermometer strips,” but none registered any change in temperature. Similar strips have been used to test incoming detainees’ temperatures, and the results appear to be wildly inaccurate.

Willenson’s letter alleges that officers at roll calls have had their temperatures taken using an infrared thermometer that officers typically use to measure the temperature of rooms inside the jail complex, a piece of hardware that is labeled not for use on humans.

Jail staff are mostly resigned that they will likely contract COVID-19 in the weeks to come, and most are coming for their shifts despite their concerns, said several employees interviewed by the Sun-Times.

“I’m scared to go on the tier, but it’s my job. Of course, I don’t want to take it home to my family, but what choice do I have?” one corrections officer said in a phone interview after a weekend shift. “I have to do my job.”