‘Like being in hell’: Detainees offer window into Cook County Jail’s Covid-19 surge

As the number of Covid-19 cases at the Cook County Jail hit a record high in January, people detained there accused the jail of inadequate testing and quarantine measures, poor social distancing, and unsanitary conditions.

Detainees in Covid-19 quarantine at the Cook County Jail.

Detainees held in quarantine at the Cook County Jail on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune file photo)

Content warning: This story contains mention of suicidal thoughts and death.

This story has been updated with a statement from the sheriff’s office about the jail’s quarantine policies.

On New Year’s Eve, Cook County Jail correctional officers removed a sick man from a tier inside Division 9, one of the jail’s maximum-security facilities, according to several men detained there. They weren’t surprised when jail staff quarantined them soon after taking the man away. He had been coughing for days, they said. The surprise came when the quarantined men realized that the jail’s health care provider didn’t plan to have them immediately tested for Covid-19.

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Tommie Davis was there. Davis, 59, remembers wrestling with mounting fear and uncertainty as days passed and more people on his tier appeared sick. There was no way for him to know for sure who might have Covid-19, he said. At least six detainees said staff never administered tests to people on the tier during their seclusion. After approximately six days, Davis said they were let off quarantine without a test.

“It’s just terrible,” Davis said in a phone interview from the jail. “This is like being in hell. Not jail — hell.”

Spokespeople for the Cook County sheriff’s office and Cook County Health, the jail’s health care provider, said they could not confirm or deny the detainees’ account but maintained that authorities follow guidance from local and federal health departments for testing and quarantines.

Tests may be administered to symptomatic people or those exposed to an infected person, and people held at the jail can request testing — or reject it, according to a spokesperson for Cook County Health.

However, multiple people detained at the Cook County Jail said they didn’t know they could request a test, and others expected to be tested after having close contact with someone suspected positive for Covid-19.

Injustice Watch interviewed 15 people about their experiences behind bars during the pandemic, as the jail weathered a record-breaking peak of Covid-19 cases; the sheriff’s office reported that at least 430 people in custody on Jan. 10 were currently positive for Covid-19. The number of Covid cases at the jail have since declined. The men, interviewed between Jan. 11 and Feb. 6, expressed fears about getting sick and accused the jail of inadequate testing and quarantine measures, poor social distancing, and unsanitary conditions.

These issues are not new. Complaints about the jail’s conditions and access to health care predate the pandemic. In 2020, as the virus spread behind bars, detainees filed an emergency class action lawsuit in federal court alleging that the jail’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis put thousands of lives at risk. A judge ordered the sheriff’s office to implement policies to ensure adequate testing, sanitation, and personal protective equipment.

Jails face particular challenges combating outbreaks of contagious viruses such as Covid-19, according to multiple studies. The flow of new admissions, barriers to social distancing, and unsanitary conditions can all contribute to easier spread of viruses. As of Feb. 8, 10 detainees had died after contracting Covid-19 in the jail and five correctional officers had died from the virus, according to the Cook County sheriff’s office.

Most people locked in the Cook County Jail are defendants in criminal cases awaiting trial. They are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law. Advocates have urged court officials to depopulate the jail as much as possible since Covid-19 began spreading behind bars. As of Feb. 8, more than 6,000 people were detained at the jail. That’s an increase of about 50% since May 2020, when the jail population decreased after prosecutors and judges worked to reduce the number of detained people during the early onset of the pandemic.  About 76% of the jail population is Black, and 17% of the jail population is Latinx.

The jail can’t control who is put in custody or released. But people are tested for Covid-19 when they are admitted to the jail, according to a sheriff’s office spokesperson. Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health, praised the jail for its response to the pandemic.

“The Cook County Jail has been a leader in implementing strong and innovative Covid practices in correctional settings and has done an excellent job during a very challenging time,” she said in a statement to Injustice Watch. “After the initial surge, for example, they implemented strong practices to separate and quarantine people coming into the jail, knowing many come in already infected with Covid.”

To the people inside, though, the jail’s actions are not enough to make them feel safe.

Davis and others on his tier, 3E, said the quarantine procedures after the sick man was removed on New Year’s Eve were insufficient. People on a quarantined tier aren’t allowed to mingle with other parts of the jail’s population or to leave for in-person court. But they can still interact with other people on their tier for hours at a time, which is one policy that multiple people on 3E said frightens them.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said, “Individuals who are housed on a quarantined tier may alternate time out of their cells throughout the day in order to limit the number of individuals share a common area. But all individuals are granted hours of time out of their cells each day.”

The tier is known as the “old man’s deck” among jail detainees. Many people held there are in their late 50s or older, according to the men Injustice Watch spoke with, a population at higher risk of suffering severe health complications or death from Covid-19. Their age group also may shed the virus for longer periods, said epidemiologist Monik Jiménez, who researches Covid-19 in jails and prisons. Viral shedding occurs when someone releases virus particles into an environment, whether through symptoms such as coughing or by talking, eating, or exhaling.

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.

One man on the tier, Jesus G. Silva, said he’s worried about the lack of social distancing at the jail. He remembers his anxiety growing during the quarantine and said he fears for his life.

Silva, 37, said he heard coughs echo around his tier during the day — and slept just a few feet away from his cellmate during the night.

“I’m scared that I’m not going to make it to my kids,” Silva said. “I got two boys and a girl, and I talk to them mostly every day. They tell me to be safe, and I tell them to be safe. But am I really safe?”

In correctional facilities, incarcerated people who have had close contact with someone suspected of or confirmed to have Covid-19 should only be quarantined as a group if there are no alternatives, especially if they are older adults or have medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. The facility should monitor people quarantined in groups for symptoms and “consider” testing people every three to seven days until no new cases in the group are found for two weeks, according to the CDC’s guidance.

But the men quarantined on tier 3E say that didn’t happen. And while jail health care officials maintain that quarantines typically last until no new cases are detected on a unit, or until there is no further evidence of sustained transmission of Covid-19, multiple people on tier 3E remember seeing other detainees who appeared symptomatic during the quarantine and days after, with some so sick they stayed in their cells.

Jiménez said the jail should do routine mass testing of staff and detained people, rather than relying on sick people to speak up about symptoms. Otherwise, cases fall through the cracks, she said.

“If we’re willing to do testing for our college students regularly, people who are incarcerated should have the same value placed upon their health and their lives,” she said.

Some people in the jail said they’re scared to report that they’re sick and be blamed for triggering a quarantine. Others, such as Kelsey Jackson, said their requests for health services are often denied or delayed when they seek medical help. Jackson, 43, said he had headaches and a cough around New Year’s and filed what’s known as a medical slip to alert staff. However, he said, he wasn’t tested or isolated from others during the tier’s quarantine.

Some detainees who speak limited English said it is difficult to get help because of the language barrier. Jose Zavala said he thinks his complaints and medical requests are ignored by staff. After about 14 months in jail awaiting trial, he said lack of medical care and poor conditions inside the jail has contributed to suicidal thoughts.

“I told my family I can’t do this anymore,” he said in Spanish.

People living behind bars during the pandemic aren’t just worried about the jail’s handling of Covid-19 or getting sick. Many of them are also concerned about how loved ones outside jail walls are weathering the pandemic without them, and some detained men are grieving people they’ve lost while awaiting trial.

Davis is one of more than 2,000 people who have spent longer than a year in jail amid a court backlog that has delayed their cases. He was already detained when the pandemic started, and he is still waiting to receive judgment on his case. Last June, Davis’ mother died. He had to give her eulogy over the phone.

“That will stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “I start shaking just thinking about it. That was not right.”

Being detained took away his chance to say goodbye to his best friend, Davis said. After about 31 months in jail, he said he wants to get out — not only because of Covid-19 but because he has to step up for his family now that his mother is gone.

That was a promise that he made in his eulogy: “Your flesh can rest in peace,” he said. “I got it from here.” For now, though, he’s still sending his support through phone calls.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

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