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Preckwinkle defends Dart’s handling of Cook County Jail during coronavirus outbreak

Like a cruise ship or a nursing home, Toni Preckwinkle says the jail is a “petri dish” for the coronavirus where two detainees have died and more will inevitably follow.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks at a press conference about plans for Cook County Jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic last month.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks at a press conference about plans for Cook County Jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic last month.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Cook County Jail is a “petri dish” for the coronavirus where two detainees have died and more deaths will inevitably follow, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Friday, defending Sheriff Tom Dart’s handling of the crisis.

Over the years, Preckwinkle and Dart have clashed repeatedly on budget and criminal justice issues.

The sheriff has been sharply critical of Preckwinkle-championed reforms aimed at reducing the jail population that, he contends, have made his job more difficult and the county less safe.

But when it comes to Cook County Jail, site of the nation’s largest known outbreak of the coronavirus — the longtime adversaries are on the same side — even after the death of a second inmate.

“The person who died was accused of molesting children. There was no way that person was gonna get out of jail. No way. We’re trying to release people accused of non-violent crimes. We’re trying to get the jail population as low as we can. But there are limits to that. We’re not gonna release people who are accused of crimes against children, people who are accused of murder. They’re gonna stay in jail,” Preckwinkle told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The jail is a congregate facility. It’s our equivalent of a cruise ship or a nursing home. I often say it’s a petri dish. So, we’re gonna continue to see people contract the disease. Unfortunately, there will be people who succumb to it just because it’s a jail.”

Earlier this week, a federal judge refused to order the mass release of pre-trial inmates but issued a temporary restraining order compelling Dart to make immediate changes to testing and safety.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly criticized sheriff’s personnel for failing to supply inmates with soap, cleaning supplies and face masks and neglecting to clean common spaces after an inmate in that area tested positive for the coronavirus.

Kennelly also acknowledged that inmates are being housed “under conditions that make social distancing impossible” with beds “separated by only one to four feet” in rooms he likened to a military barracks.

On Friday, Preckwinkle was asked whether Dart is doing enough to protect the detainee population at a time when 289 of those in jail had tested positive and two — ages 51 and 59 — mostly likely died of complications related to COVID-19.

“The sheriff is doing everything he can to put people in single cells and to try to reduce the contact that people have with each other. But the jail is a very difficult place in which to practice social distancing,” she said.

“The sheriff is doing the best he can under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, extraordinarily difficult circumstances. As I said, more people will contract that disease, and some will succumb to it.”

Of the 276 jail inmates who had tested positive as of Thursday, 219 had symptoms characterized as “mild to moderate” and were being treated at the jail-based Cermak Health Services. By Friday evening, 13 more detainees tested positive, according to the sheriff’s office.

Preckwinkle said “maintaining staffing levels” is the most pressing issue at the jail, and Cermak and Stroger hospitals. She thanked Gov. J.B. Pritzker for promising 80 additional nurses and physicians assistants starting this weekend to alleviate staffing shortages at Cermak.