Court order hasn't stopped COVID-19 spread at Cook County Jail; attorneys want drastic action

ByChuck Goudie, Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner via WLS logo
Thursday, April 16, 2020
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Attorneys are asking for court permission to document conditions at Cook County Jail and question corrections officials about actions taken to keep detainees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the Cook County Jail claiming to have executed a laundry list of sanitation and testing requirements set by a federal judge, attorneys for some prisoners say dangerous violations continue and they are renewing their request for tougher action and a preliminary injunction.

"Unfortunately, the evidence available since the TRO establishes that these essential steps have not worked and cannot work to abate the spread of the disease" the new filing alleges.

Documents filed late yesterday in Chicago federal court cite the death of a third person and frame Cook County Jail as "currently the site of the largest single-site outbreak of COVID-19 in the country."

Among the possible actions being suggested by civil rights attorneys: convening a three-judge panel to hear evidence and chart a way forward.

"The virus is spreading rapidly in the jail since the issuance of this Court's order, and that is not surprising: People are sleeping within three feet of each other, eating and using showers in close proximity to each other, and touching the same surfaces," a new filing alleges. "These human beings are at grave risk."

RELATED: Coronavirus danger escalating behind bars at some Illinois prisons, jails

Sheriff Tom Dart, who supervises jail operations and is named in the federal lawsuit, vigorously disputes that his office has underperformed at the facility.

"Plaintiffs' newest filing again demonstrates a complete lack of understanding, or willful ignorance, of the complexities of running jail, and the most basic limitations that govern the Sheriff's actions," according to an emailed statement to the I-Team from the sheriff's office.

In the new filing, civil rights attorneys say that if social distancing and other aspects of the order can't be executed, that the jail be "ordered to reduce the population of the jail until such distancing is possible." They say there may be a need for more drastic action at the jail. "The Sheriff must immediately be ordered to take all possible steps to implement medically required social distancing because it is the only way to prevent a severe risk of harm."

"The Sheriff's Office does not have the authority to release people," stated a spokesman on Wednesday afternoon. "We are maximizing space for social distancing as much as possible, however there are only so many beds to house the people that are remanded to our custody."

According to the filing, "Detainees continue to reside in dorms, sleeping in close proximity to others, and in cells with two people. Detainees also continue to share common areas, sinks, showers, toilets and eating areas."

Attorneys are asking for court permission to access the jail, photograph the conditions and depose county correction's department officials about the action that have been undertaken to keep detainees safe.

"We are concerned that we're being constantly asked to take the sheriff's word for it when what we see when we peek behind the curtain and actually talk to the brave men and women who are housed there is that things are not well in hand, things are not being handled appropriately," said Sarah Grady, one of the Chicago attorneys representing detainees. "We look forward to continuing to press forward to protect the constitutional rights of detainees who are being held in custody," Grady told the I-Team.

The sheriff's spokesman responded on Wednesday, saying "We have and will continue to work to keep employees and detainees safe in the wake of this uninformed suit that distracts essential staff from core functions that plaintiffs continue to misrepresent."

At a federal court teleconference on Wednesday afternoon, county attorneys were ordered to file a brief on the new allegations by Friday night -- including a statement on whether it is even possible to practice social distancing in the confines of a jailhouse, civil rights attorneys said. The defendants' lawyers have until Sunday to file their brief, indicating that U.S. District Judge Mathew Kennelly wants to move quickly to resolve the case.

The latest figures from sheriff's officials are that nearly 600 detainees, jail correctional officers and other sheriff's department employers have been infected by the COVID-19 virus.