Detainees sue Sheriff Tom Dart over coronavirus at Cook County Jail

The federal lawsuit seeks the release and transfer of detainees with health problems and increased protective measures.

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A person leaves the Cook County jail complex on April 09, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson/Getty

Several attorneys and civil rights groups have filed a class-action lawsuit against Sheriff Thomas Dart seeking to remove more detainees from Cook County Jail amid the outbreak of COVID-19 inside the Southwest Side campus.

With the jail headcount already hovering at or near record lows following the recent release of mostly non-violent detainees, the federal complaint filed Friday seeks a court order to release possibly hundreds more.

A 59-year-old detainee possibly died from complications related to coronavirus, the sheriff’s office said Monday, citing preliminary reports.

The lawsuit calls for the immediate release or transfer of detainees who are older or have underlying medical conditions, which puts them at risk if they contract COVID-19.

As of Monday morning, the jail population was at 4,567 — a drop of more than 1,000 from a month ago. Jail officials Sunday reported that 234 detainees had tested positive for coronavirus, a number that has grown daily since the first two confirmed cases were announced two weeks ago. Nearly 80 jail staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

“The first infection was detected two weeks ago [and now] one out of every 20 detainees now has coronavirus,” said attorney Steven Weil, who is representing the detainees. “That’s an astronomically higher rate than the infection rate as the population as a whole, and that seems to be growing.”

Lawyers representing the detainees will argue their case — via telephone —before a federal judge Tuesday, said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

Dart, who late last month held a press conference touting the measures his staff had undertaken to suppress the spread of coronavirus, issued a statement Monday, saying that the litigation was “counterproductive.” He added that he already had implemented much of what they demanded, adding that he and his staff communicated with advocates for the detainees before the lawsuit was filed.

“Unfortunately, they instead filed this uninformed suit which reflects a clear misunderstanding of efforts being made to respond to this crisis.In turn, we must expend resources to explain that much of what their complaint requests is already in place,” Dart said. “This is counterproductive to our mutual goal and is simply not the way to address the pandemic.”

Plaintiffs identified by name in the lawsuit include a diabetic man who lives in a dormitory-style housing unit inside the jail where several detainees have been removed after showing signs of infection, and a detainee with cancer and multiple other health conditions living in another division of the jail.

Last month, in response to petition by Public Defender Amy Campanelli, Chief Criminal Court Judge Leroy K. Martin Jr. mandated a sweeping review of hundreds of criminal cases of “low-risk” detainees — which, along with a decrease in the number of arrests and offenders charged by prosecutors, has led to a near 20% drop in the jail population.

Last week, an attorney who is representing female jail guards and staff in a sexual harassment lawsuit against the sheriff’s office sent a separate letter, alleging that jail staff were not provided with proper protective equipment, training or supplies such as hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Dart responded to that letter with his own. “In the middle of this crisis, to presume so much with so little support, is dangerous,” Dart’s letter reads.

“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.”

The sheriff has said the jail has stepped up sanitation measures, and is isolating more inmates in single cells and setting up an isolation area inside a former jail boot camp that can house hundreds of detainees. Dart Monday also announced that a mobile COVID-19 testing site for his staff opened at the jail in partnership with The New Roseland Community Hospital.

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