For Cook County Jail, a hot spot of COVID-19, our choices are fast action or mass death - Metropolitan Planning Council

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For Cook County Jail, a hot spot of COVID-19, our choices are fast action or mass death

Even as the number of people in the jail with COVID-19 increases, another week has passed without significant action to reduce the jail population.

Image provided by authors, courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times

This op-ed first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 20, 2020. 

Nicholas Lee, age 42, died of COVID-19 on April 13 while awaiting trial in the Cook County Jail. He was the third person to die of COVID-19 while jailed, and 353 incarcerated people and 261 staff have since then tested positive.

“I feel like I lost the battle for my husband,” Lee’s widow told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Most people in Cook County Jail have not been convicted of any crime, and are being held because they don’t have the money to post bail. But even as the number of people in the jail who are sick with COVID-19 increases, another week has passed without significant action by county officials to reduce the jail population.

Social distancing is impossible in the crowded and unsanitary confines of the jail, which is now one of the foremost sites of the pandemic in the nation. Close quarters create a kind of Russian roulette death penalty for people awaiting trial. COVID-19 cases soon could overwhelm the jail’s health systems, creating chaos and making the facility difficult to secure. County leaders must rapidly find ways to responsibly release people and provide housing and safe quarantine outside of the jail.

As researchers, we have been tracking the ways that jails and prisons increase the spread of COVID-19. There are still more than 4,300 people being held in Cook County Jail, and the rate of spread of the virus is about 33 times higher inside the jail than it is in the city of Chicago.

African Americans are jailed disproportionately in Cook County, and this crisis is further heightening racial inequality. While the courts have slowed the number of people entering the jail, releases have not risen to the level required to prevent mass deaths. Each day that passes without a significant reduction in the jail population imperils the health of incarcerated people, jail employees and their families, as well as the health of all those who live in the surrounding communities.

The pandemic is revealing the ways in which Cook County has used the jail to address a myriad of social problems; many people are held in jail because they have an addiction, are homeless, or struggle with mental illness. According to the Chicago Community Bond Fund, at least 260 people languish in jail simply because they are poor and cannot afford to post a low cash bond. Those who pose no threat to public safety should not be held in jail, but Cook County’s social safety net is thin, so jail is often used in place of a homeless shelter or psychiatric hospital.

In mid-March, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Public Defender Amy Campanelli worked together to identify a list of hundreds of people who could be released from jail without posing a threat to public safety. While an important first step, this process was not exhaustive, and many more cases should be considered for release.

It is time for Cook County officials, Chief Judge Tim Evans and Criminal Division Chief Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. to get back to the table, identify all people who can be safely released and create a process for expedited hearings and releases. If they don’t, it could soon become impossible to provide medical care for the number of cases in the Cook County Jail, and these cases threaten to overwhelm the county’s medical systems.

Sheriff Tom Dart has taken steps to improve sanitation and distancing practices in the jail, including the moving of people to single cells, but no one can meaningfully control the spread of COVID-19 or prevent mass deaths in a crowded jail. Hand soap and sanitizer are rationed, hundreds of people share bathrooms, and health care is in short supply. Even when assigned to single cells, people sleep within a few feet of one another.

It is not too late to responsibly release people from Cook County Jail, strengthening the county’s efforts to flatten the curve of the spread of the coronavirus. A coalition of civil rights groups has sued Dart in federal court to secure the immediate release of many of those being held in the jail. On April 9, a federal court sent the suit back to a state court, creating further delays.

Cook County leaders should look to San Francisco, where efforts to control COVID-19 in the local jail have been swift and effective. The San Francisco district attorney and public defender worked together to quickly reduce the jail population by 40%. They assessed who was safe for release, including the elderly, some veterans, those being held for misdemeanors, those awaiting placement in a mental health facility, those being detained simply because of an inability to pay bail, and those already scheduled for release.

San Francisco has proved that mass release can be done safely.

Just as Mayor Lori Lightfoot acted quickly to repurpose McCormick Place to treat COVID-19 cases, fast action must be taken to depopulate the jail now, so that detainees and community members alike can effectively practice social distancing.

Lightfoot has led efforts to turn empty downtown hotels into housing for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 but have mild symptoms. Why can’t empty hotel rooms across the city be used to house those who need a safe place to quarantine after release from jail?

Creative housing solutions that offer people a safe two-week quarantine upon release, along with greatly expanded access to testing for COVID-19 for everyone in contact with the jail, could save the lives not only of incarcerated people, but also jail workers and others.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

In this case, justice delayed is spiking the curve and putting everyone’s lives in danger.

Amanda Klonsky (@amandaklonsky1) is chief program officer for a prison education organization. Recently appointed to the Juvenile Justice Commission of Illinois, she led education programs in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center for nearly a decade.

Dan Cooper (@dgordoncooper) is director of research at Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago and co-author of War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City.

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