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Federal judge holds hearing on lawsuit filed over Cook County Jail coronavirus response

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly delayed a ruling on a lawsuit seeking the release or transfer of elderly and medically compromised detainees.

Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of protesters drive around Cook County Jail and the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, in Chicago honking their horns and chanting to demand the “mass release” of detainees at the jail, Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of protesters drive around Cook County Jail and the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, in Chicago honking their horns and chanting to demand the “mass release” of detainees at the jail, Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia

As the New York Times identified Cook County Jail as the top coronavirus hot spot in the nation, a lawyer for Sheriff Tom Dart told a federal judge Tuesday that officials have already undertaken all recommended precautions to prevent the deadly virus from spreading inside the massive Southwest Side complex.

During an emergency hearing, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly delayed a ruling on a lawsuit seeking the release or transfer of elderly and medically compromised detainees.

It was not clear when the judge would make his ruling on the lawsuit filed on behalf of two inmates by attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center and the Loevy & Loevy law firm.

But Kennelly asked for a fresh round of briefs on legal issues surrounding the request to release possibly hundreds of detainees during the three-hour hearing via conference call at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

The lawsuit cites affidavits provided by detainees, former senior medical jail officers and at least one current correctional officer who have complained the jail has not done enough to provide adequate testing and protective gear for detainees and staff, or to alleviate the close quarters that make spreading the virus a certainty.

A group of lawyers filed a federal lawsuit to spring medically vulnerable people from Cook County Jail.
A group of lawyers filed a federal lawsuit to spring medically vulnerable people from Cook County Jail.
Provided

Robert Shannon, an attorney with the sheriff’s office, told Kennelly before the lawsuit was filed and after conferring with lawyers for the detainees, the jail instituted most of the policies to restrict the spread of the coronavirus.

“Almost virtually everything they are asking for as far as policy and protocol [is] being put in place at the jail,” Shannon said.

Attorney Alexa Van Brunt, with the MacArthur Justice Center, disagreed.

“The conditions on the ground: There is no social distancing in the jail, and the defendants do not claim that there is,” she said.

Kennelly noted, “It’s like a whole city down there, basically, so there can be in some situations a disconnect between the potentially very well thought out policies … and how those policies get carried out on the ground.”

Jail officials said staff are now required to wear surgical masks, and those in close contact with inmates have been issued N95 masks. Detainees with symptoms are being tested, and the sheriff’s office says it intends to ramp up testing to detainees entering or leaving the jail.

On Tuesday, dozens of protesters drove around the jail, honking their horns, chanting and banging drums to demand the “mass release” of the detainees.

Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of protesters drive around Cook County Jail and the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, in Chicago honking their horns and chanting to demand the “mass release” of detainees at the jail,
Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of protesters drive around Cook County Jail and the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, in Chicago honking their horns and chanting to demand the “mass release” of detainees at the jail,
Ashlee Rezin Garcia

The jail population dropped nearly 20% — to 4,547 — after Chief Criminal Court Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr. mandated a sweeping review of criminal cases of hundreds of low-risk, mostly non-violent detainees.

As of Tuesday evening, 238 detainees tested positive for COVID-19. Jeffery Pendleton, 59, was the first detainee to die of suspected coronavirus over the weekend, jail officials said, citing preliminary reports.

Contributing: Ashlee Rezin Garcia