Where is the urgency to decarcerate the Cook County Jail?

3 people stand in front of the Cook County Jail with a sign reading

Alec Ozawa

Activists from Nikkei Uprising in front of the Cook County Jail at the ‘Not One More Year, Not One More Death’ rally on 4/11/21, held one year after Nikolas Lee died after contracting Covid-19 in the jail.

As Covid-19 surges again, the Cook County Jail is experiencing its largest outbreak yet.

The jail hit another grim record this week, with more than 430 incarcerated people and more than 450 staff testing positive as of Monday. The number of daily infections has quadrupled over the past month. The positivity rate in the Cook County Jail is nearly twice that of the city of Chicago, making the people there that much more susceptible to hospitalization and death.

This mass outbreak was predictable — and largely preventable.

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Track the coronavirus cases inside Cook County jail

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Injustice Watch has been tracking the number of cases and the population inside the Cook County Jail.

It was common knowledge that a winter surge in cases was coming, and yet Cook County Jail is still overcrowded, social distancing remains impossible, and its health care system is terribly inadequate. The jail is always a dangerous place for anyone to languish, let alone during a health crisis of this magnitude. Yet county officials continue to fail to do the one thing that health experts agree would save lives: reduce the number of people incarcerated. They have instead implemented practices that put incarcerated people at higher risk.

In April 2020, civil rights attorneys at the MacArthur Justice Center, Loevy & Loevy, and Civil Rights Corps, with support from the Chicago Community Bond Fund, filed a lawsuit to force Sheriff Tom Dart to institute Covid protections for people incarcerated in the Cook County Jail. The court issued a preliminary injunction requiring social distancing, as well as access to personal protective equipment, soap, and sanitizer for incarcerated people. The sheriff responded by working to overturn these mandates and succeeded at getting the social distancing requirement lifted by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Dart and his staff have continuously failed to provide the minimum protections mandated by the court. Chicago Community Bond Fund has received disturbing reports that people are not being tested after intake, not receiving sufficient soap and sanitizer, and that people who are symptomatic are being denied timely treatment and are not quickly quarantined. People recently released from the jail have noted that jail staff are not consistently and properly wearing PPE, and that they treat the risks faced by incarcerated people with “no sense of urgency.” One person said that the jail staff seem to view the people incarcerated under their watch as “disposable.”

This negligence has caused at least 10 people to die after testing positive for Covid-19 at the Cook County Jail, not including those who may have died after being released with a Covid infection.

A woman stands in a bright blue blazer with her arms crossed, smiling

Briana Payton is the policy analyst for the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

Despite these tragic and preventable deaths, Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, and former Public Defender Amy Campanelli did not implement sustainable practices to decrease the number of people in the Cook County Jail. In response to demands from over 70 advocacy groups in spring of 2020, they conducted a mass review of cases and successfully reduced the number of people incarcerated in the jail from 5,700 in March to just over 4,000 in May. But the courts returned to normal practices and allowed the number of people in the jail to quickly return to pre-pandemic levels. There are now 5,848 people incarcerated in the jail as of Wednesday, more than there were in early March 2020. Moreover, there are over 2,600 people incarcerated in their homes on electronic monitoring. In recent months, the total number of people in the sheriff’s custody has reached the highest numbers since General Order 18.8a took effect in 2017. (That order required judges to only set money bonds in amounts that people could afford to pay, which led to a significant decrease in the number of people incarcerated in the jail.) The courts’ current practices are not only failing to decarcerate during the pandemic, but are actually reversing progress on pretrial reforms that predate the pandemic.

To make matters worse, Mayor Lori Lightfoot repeatedly decries pretrial release and continually blames people on electronic monitoring for violence in Chicago, despite having full knowledge that these claims are unfounded. Last week, she reiterated her  request for a moratorium on electronic monitoring for people with certain charges, saying they should always be jailed pretrial. This clearly unconstitutional practice would cause even more people to fill the jail when people direly need to be released.

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State’s Attorney has contested vast majority of bond motions since COVID-19

Public Defender Amy Campanelli has tried to get more than 3,000 detainees released from the jail since the coronavirus outbreak began in March. State's Attorney Kim Foxx's office has contested more than 2,500 of them.

The inaction of county officials sends a troubling message about their lack of concern for incarcerated people, who are primarily Black and Latinx. Covid-19 outbreaks in the Cook County Jail have been linked to significant spread throughout Chicago, where Black people account for more than 40% of Covid-19 deaths. County officials’ refusal to act is fueling the transmission in communities that have already been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Evans and Foxx must work with Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. to immediately review as many cases as possible for release, bond adjustments, and case dismissals. The sheriff must provide proper protections to those in his custody, and stop bringing people into the jail for technical violations of electronic monitoring. The mayor must stop spreading false narratives and promoting the unconstitutional practice of denying people pretrial release based solely on the accusations they face.

By forgoing efforts to release people and curb Covid-19 outbreaks in the Cook County Jail, county officials are perpetuating this deadly threat to incarcerated people and to the communities they return to each day. It is long past time to decarcerate Cook County Jail.

Briana Payton is the policy analyst for the Chicago Community Bond Fund and a member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. She holds a master’s degree in social work with a concentration in justice system transformation from the University of Chicago. You can follow the Chicago Community Bond Fund on twitter at @chibondfund.