Illinois coronavirus: In Cook County Jail COVID-19 fight, 'social distancing must yield to security concerns'

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In a spontaneous rumble at Cook County jail, correctional officers can't be expected to intervene from six feet away.
That reality check came Monday in a federal court filing by jail officials, who have had to explain why social distancing isn't in force 24/7 even though the facility has been hit hard by COVID-19.

"There are instances where social distancing must yield to security concerns (for example, housing certain classifications of detainees, medical concerns, or breaking up fights). An order mandating social distancing would impede the Sheriff's ability to address security and medical issues that may arise," Cook County attorneys stated in a lawsuit brought by civil rights attorneys and lawyers representing some jail detainees.

The I-Team learned federal and state health officials were invited to the jail last week to tour and inspect jail conditions.

"I would very much hope that public health officials from Illinois and the federal government are coming in to give the sheriff help and advice because this is a place that, that the sheriff has allowed the virus to run rampant," said Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney and the Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps.

Detainee attorneys are asking for an emergency order that would either put strict counter-coronavirus measures in place for more than 4,000 prisoners currently at the jail, or require the wholesale release of detainees.

Sheriff Tom Dart opposes the measure, and maintains his office is protecting prisoners, officers and staff members.

The jail population has been cut by thousands the past few years during a period of bond reform, and the past month has been reduced further by prisoner release due to COVID-19 concerns. More than 700 detainees, correctional officers and other sheriff's department staff have been infected by the virus. Four prisoners have died.

According to the federal court filing by county attorneys, "As the Jail population has decreased, the CCSO has used that flexibility to provide detainees more space to achieve social distancing."

Dart said he has obtained enough surgical face masks to provide every detainee with a new one, every day, until June 7, 2020.

A new 168-page filing by attorneys for jail detainees concludes Dart's efforts "are insufficient."

"It's simply impossible to social distance when you have 4,300 human beings confined in a corporate environment like this, and so we think that the remedy that needs to happen here is the need to get people out of that facility," said Karakatsanis.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly has ordered both sides to appear at a hearing on Thursday, for limited witness testimony and arguments about what should happened next.

A Cook County Sheriff's Department spokesman responded with a statement Monday, saying:

As noted in the court filings, the Cook County Sheriff's Office continues to work to maximize social distancing to the extent it is possible, including opening previously closed detention areas in a short amount of time and proactively moving to single cell the jail population.

We will continue to aggressively work around the clock to combat the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of our staff and detainees.
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