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Federal court orders Cook County sheriff to better protect jail inmates from COVID-19

Staff Report

CHICAGO — A federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois has ordered Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart to implement additional social distancing and sanitary measures Cook County Jail as part of his constitutional obligation to protect pretrial detainees in his custody.

Cook County Jail is one of the nation’s largest single-site jails and has become the single biggest Coronavirus hotspot in the United States. Earlier this week, Chicago Community Bond Fund, civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, and the MacArthur Justice Center filed an emergency class-action lawsuit against the Cook County Sheriff’s Office seeking the immediate release of medically vulnerable people from Cook County Jail in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

“The court’s order is a significant first step to protecting the rights and well being of people at the jail which is in the midst of a crisis,” Sarah Grady, an attorney with Loevy and Loevy, said. “But this is only the first step and we will continue to work to protect those who are vulnerable in the jail as the lawsuit continues.”

Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said the ruling shows Dart’s assurances that the jail is safe can’t be trusted.

“We are grateful the court concluded judicial intervention was necessary to implement overdue measures, such as effective sanitation, social distancing at intake, rapid testing, and protective equipment for detainees, in order to safeguard detainees during this unprecedented crisis,” she said. “We will continue to monitor conditions on the ground, to ensure that the Office of the Sheriff complies with the order.”

As of this report, more than 250 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, and one man, 59-year-old Jeffery Pendleton, has died. Many of the facility’s 4,500 inmates are being held because they can’t make bail.

Sharlyn Grace, executive director of Chicago Community Bond Fund, echoed Van Burnt, adding people booked into the jail have been “left there to die.”

“If we the county does not decrease quickly, more people will die,” Grace said. “Nearly one thousand of these people are incarcerated only because they can’t afford to pay their bond. The size of someone’s bank account shouldn’t determine whether or not they survive this pandemic.”

More than 100 advocacy, community, legal organizations and unions have been calling for a mass release of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail to protect public health. Earlier this week, more than 200 cars circled the building calling for the release of people incarcerated in the jail.  Hundreds of community members have called into the offices of the Cook County sheriff, state’s attorney, and chief judge demanding the inmates be released.

“We are committed to continuing to fight for every person incarcerated in the health hazard that is Cook County Jail,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis said. “If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it is that crisis—though it may impact us inequitably—lays bare our deep interconnectedness. If one of us is denied treatment, all of us are at greater risk. If one of us is forced into conditions that make them more susceptible, all of us will bear the brunt of the ensuing strain on our healthcare system.”

Dart could not be reached for comment.

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