Cook County coronavirus: Sheriff calls jail case 'constitutional whack-a-mole' as re-entry ministry surges

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The Cook County Jail, renowned for its roster of gangsters, mass murderers, hanging gallows and the "Old Sparky" electric chair, isn't what it used to be. Mobsters Frank Nitti and Al Capone are long gone, and the last electrocution death sentence there was carried out in 1962.

Lately the jail has been known for COVID-19. There have been hundreds of infected prisoners and sheriff's staff inside the walls since late March marked by the deaths of seven inmates and three employees.

The past week, however, the number of infected jailhouse detainees has dropped by nearly 100, according to Cook County Department of Corrections data.

That sharp, and welcome, decline comes as Sheriff Thomas Dart appealed a federal judge's order requiring the jail step up social distancing, special detainee housing arrangements and coronavirus testing.

Dart maintains the civil rights attorneys and detainees who filed a lawsuit against him and the jail are playing "constitutional whack-a-mole" secretly aimed at achieving the wholesale release of jail prisoners.

"It has become apparent that Plaintiffs' counsel has been singularly focused on categorical release at all costs -- arguably pursuing a political decarceration [sic] policy through misuse of the legal process in the middle of a pandemic," stated Sheriff Dart's attorneys in the jail appeal.

Jail officials say they are "meeting CDC guidelines" and "remain in complete compliance with the narrow preliminary injunction" that was issued by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly.

Sarah Grady, an attorney representing the inmates who filed the lawsuit released a statement to the I-Team, saying, "We are confident that the Court's preliminary injunction order will be affirmed on appeal. We also find it unfortunate that the Sheriff is spending limited resources on fighting the injunction, rather than taking care to comply with the order, which is designed to protect detainees' lives."

Kolbe House jail ministry surges as COVID-19 releases increase

Just down the street from the Cook County Jail is Kolbe House, an Archdiocese of Chicago jailhouse ministry that is adjusting to pandemic operations.

"It's a very difficult environment there for everyone," said Kolbe House executive director MaryClare Birmingham.

As county and state officials actively began decreasing the number of people behind bars to curb the spread of COVID-19, the ministry's work boomed. They've helped as many people in the past eight weeks as they served the previous eight months.

"It used to be that our house in normal times is a hub of service, where people come and go, and we are now working remotely as much as possible," Birmingham told the ABC7 I-Team.

Now in the midst of this global crisis Kolbe House is acting as a supply depot, dropping off care packages including masks and gloves, clothing, food and grocery gift cards to halfway houses or family homes to help the formerly incarcerated transition back to life outside the walls.

"Right now it brings a lot more stress for all the men and women coming out from Cook County Jail or from prison, IDOC," said Deacon Pablo Perez, Kolbe House assistant director. "Unfortunately right now a lot of the social services and the offices where they would normally get all the assistance that they need, they're not able to because they're closed."

"We're really happy to be busy because we know that people are in the community and need services, and need support, and we're ready to provide it," said Birmingham.

Click here for more information about Kolbe House.
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