Federal judge orders social distancing inside Cook County Jail

Staff Report

CHICAGO – A federal judge on Monday ordered Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart to implement social-distancing measures for people incarcerated at the county jail.

With few exceptions, Judge Matthew Kennelly’s order dictates that people incarcerated in the jail can no longer be housed in the same cell with another person and that most dormitory housing must be stopped.

The order also extended its earlier orders requiring the sheriff to ensure sanitation, testing, social distancing at intake and the distribution of personal protective equipment to a preliminary injunction.

“Sheriff Dart has been saying this lawsuit is a waste of time and never should have been in court. Today that position was rejected by Judge Kennelly, as he extended the Temporary Restraining Order and barred dormitory housing and double celling, with narrow exceptions, throughout the Jail,” Locke Bowman, of MacArthur Justice Center, said.  “The Court order proves that a judicial injunction was absolutely necessary to protect detainees’ lives.”

As the court recognized in its order, Cook County Jail continues to be one of the nation’s largest single-site jails and has been identified as the single biggest Coronavirus hotspot in the United States. In the last several weeks, six people have died in Cook County Jail from COVID-19, more than In the past four weeks, 461people incarcerated in the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. If the sheriff’s staff are included, nearly 824 people associated with the jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

Earlier this month, 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 Sheriff has only tested 664 people – approximately 15% of the current jail population. That means there is significant under testing at the iail, and a very high positive rate.  Today’s court order requires the Sheriff to carry out a policy of prompt coronavirus testing of all detainees who exhibit COVID symptoms AND people who have been exposed to the virus, where medically appropriate,” said the MacArthur Justice Center’s Alexa Van Brunt added. “The Court ordered the Sheriff to obtain sufficient testing materials – so testing decisions are made based on people’s health, not the availability of testing materials.”

Sara Grady, an attorney with Loevy & Loevy added:“We intend to continue to closely monitor the Sheriff’s compliance with the Court’s orders and to fight for the constitutional rights of the people detained in the jail. The Court’s order does not exclude the possibility of a release order in the future, and we expect that the outbreak will demonstrate the necessity of an order for release.”

Sharlyn Grace, executive director of Chicago Community Bond Fund, said the organization spoke more than 500 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail since the pandemic began, and they reported that conditions continue to place people’s health in danger. The court order, Grave said, cited the declarations submitted on behalf of incarcerated people who say social distancing is impossible in the jail and that there are ongoing and serious sanitation problems.

“The narrative being put forward by Sheriff Dart is not based in reality and continues to put people at risk of further harm,” Graces said. “The only way to prevent more deaths is through decarceration. We continue to demand mass release of people from Cook County Jail in the name of public health.”

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