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Jackson wants Cook County Jail detainees, staff included in first round of COVID-19 vaccinations

The danger is not only to those inside the jail, but for the broader community as well, Jackson argued.

Rev. Jesse Jackson joined other religious leaders outside the Cook County Jail on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 for a news conference where they asked for all detainees and staff in the jail to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Rev. Jesse Jackson joined other religious leaders outside the Cook County Jail on Thursday for a news conference where they asked for all detainees and staff in the jail to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Rev. Jesse Jackson on Thursday called for detainees and staff at the Cook County Jail to be included in the first round of folks eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in Illinois.

Currently, those vaccinations are reserved for front-line medical workers and people at long-term care facilities and assisted-living facilities.

Jackson argued staff and detainees who aren’t able to socially distance, and who rotate in and out of the jail, present a danger to the broader community.

“It’s an incubator for infestation and the spread of disease,” Jackson said at a news conference outside the jail in the Little Village neighborhood on the Southwest Side.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is also calling for detainees and jail staff to be included in the first round of vaccinations, which began in Chicago and across the nation this week.

Dart was infected with COVID-19 last month and recently resumed working from home. He didn’t attend the news conference but allowed it to be held on jail grounds.

Rev. Jesse Jackson extends his arm for a fist bump after a press conference where religious leaders called for the vaccination of staff and detainees for protection against COVID-19 at the Cook County Jail outside the Cook County Department of Corrections Division 11 Facility in the Little Village neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 17, 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Rev. Jesse Jackson extends his arm for a fist bump after a press conference where religious leaders called for COVID-19 vaccination of staff and detainees at the Cook County Jail
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Israel Rocha, CEO of Cook County Health, which operates Stroger and Provident hospitals and a slew of other county health facilities, including one inside the jail, agrees with Jackson.

“A failure to account for the enhanced risk that comes with congregate settings could lead to a greater public health hazard and unnecessary exposure to the community at large,” Rocha said in a statement.

“It’s a very transient place, with staff and detainees in and out every day,” said Caryn Stancik, a spokeswoman for Cook County Health. “Vaccinating them all would protect the population inside the jail and it would absolutely protect the population outside the jail.”

The Chicago Department of Public Health is following federal guidelines to determine the order vaccinations.

While jail employees do have some priority in receiving the vaccine, “we are concerned about the fact that jails have not been prioritized in the same way as other congregate settings,” Stancik said.

Spokespersons for the city health department and Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

Cases at the jail peaked Dec. 7, with 370 detainees fighting the COVID-19. The previous high was 307 on April 10.

As of Thursday, about 270 detainees and 66 staff members were infected with the coronavirus.

Releasing more detainees through alternatives to incarceration, such as home monitoring, would be the quickest way to bring cases down again, and would protect not only detainees but also the community at large, advocates and public officials say.

However, previous attempts to release more detainees have been met with criticism that releasing inmates leads to spikes in crime, which sources said has made it difficult to take the same action now.

In February, the jail had about 5,500 detainees. In April, county officials reduced that to around 4,000 detainees, the lowest level on record, mostly through releasing detainees with health risks, or those determined to be a low risk to public safety.

Thursday, the jail population was 5,416.

Four corrections officers and eight detainees at the jail have died from COVID-19.