Judge orders changes at Cook County Jail but no detainee release, despite COVID-19 risk

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Despite the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly is not ordering the mass release of detainees from the Cook County Jail.

According to a ruling issued Thursday, medically vulnerable detainees will not be forced to be segregated from the rest of the population nor will the court require transfer of all detainees who live on a tier where someone has already tested positive for the coronavirus.

In the 37-page ruling, Kennelly required Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to establish policies to promptly test symptomatic detainees and those who had contact with symptomatic detainees. The ruling also requires the enforcement of social distancing during the intake process of new inmates and directs the sheriff's office to provide "soap and/or hand sanitizer" to all detainees. It also directs Dart to provide sanitation supplies to jail staff.

The judge declined a request by attorneys representing detainees in the jail to issue all detainees personal protective equipment. Instead, in the ruling, jail officials will only be required to provide PPE for those detainees quarantined after having been exposed to a symptomatic detainee.

Earlier Thursday, citing "risks to the health and safety of City residents," attorneys from the Chicago Department of Law attempted to stop any wholesale release of prisoners from the COVID-19-infected Cook County Jail.

A city filing in federal court painted a blunt assessment of what would happen if all medically compromised detainees were to be freed from the jail, as some were asking in a civil lawsuit.

RELATED: Prisoners, civil rights attorneys call Cook County Jail a 'public health disaster' in new court filings

"The vast majority of detainees released from Cook County Jail would return to Chicago to reside," according to Corporation Counsel Mark A. Flessner, who submitted an amicus curiae brief known as a "friend of the court" filing. Flessner is joined in the motion by Deputy Corporation Counsel Stephen J. Kane.

The "consequences could be substantial" if large numbers of the 4,500 county jail detainees were released, city officials maintained. "The relief sought by Plaintiffs threatens to consume the resources of the City and endanger the health of its residents."

However, Kennelly said the city's concerns played "no appreciable role" in his ruling.

Sarah Grady with the law firm Loevy & Loevy told the ABC7 I-Team, "I think we're very pleased about this, this decision, and the seriousness that the court is taking the health and safety of the detainees in the jail. We see this as a first step but we will continue to fight. And we will continue to work to represent those in the jail who are facing this very real and very dire pandemic."

She said lawyers will be watching to see how Sheriff Dart establishes the policies and they will be keeping track of the infection rate at the jail. If cases of COVID-19 climb despite compliance, Grady said they are prepared to ask the court to take further action.

More than 250 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the latest jail figures Thursday. An additional 150 correctional officers and other jail personnel are also being treated for COVID-19. One prisoner died earlier this week of "apparent complications due to COVID-19." The death of a second detainee was confirmed by county officials Thursday night. Officials said detainee Leslie Pieroni, 51, died after resting positive for COVID-19 and preliminary reports indicate he died from complications of the virus.

City attorneys say the Chicago Department of Public Health has conducted an on-site review at the jail and recommended strategies for minimizing the risk of infection and provided tens of thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment.

Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx told the I-Team late Thursday that she's continuing a case by case review in an effort to keep the jail population at historic lows while maintaining public safety.

"Just because we're scrambling doesn't mean that we don't have an obligation to make sure that the jail is safe for everyone who's in there, workers and detainees," Foxx said.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who also opposes a general release, says that his office is complying with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations to combat the cluster of COVID-19. Dart says sanitary and cleaning equipment and personal hygiene supplies are being distributed to detainees in the jail tiers.

"Where it came in we'll never know," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. He told the I-Team that COVID-19 "hit every jail and prison in the country."

Sheriff Dart defended his administration's handling of COVID-19 at the jail.

"People try to make a big story of just the numbers that we have here and you know at this point I'm really having a hard time dealing with the ignorance out there. I'll give people a bit of a break because this changes so on and so forth. But the reality is we started testing before anybody else in the country did. So, would a five year old be able to figure out that our numbers will probably show quicker than other people? Of course they would. There are other states that aren't testing anybody in their correctional facility, so they can say they have zero," Dart said.

The I-Team is interviewing both Dart and attorneys for the detainees in the suit and will update this breaking story throughout Thursday afternoon.
Copyright © 2020 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.