COVID-19: Coming To A Jail Near You

Jails have become petri dishes for COVID-19.

The majority of people in jail have not been convicted of a crime, yet they are being exposed to the coronavirus. Those who cycle in and out of jails are also taking COVID-19 back into their homes, infecting Black, brown, and poor white communities.

There are almost 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, the majority in state and federal prisons where people serve sentences of one year or longer, and turnover is slow. Yet in county jails where people serve short stints, there are more than ten million admittances every year, making it even more important to contain the spread of COVID-19 there. President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for the pandemic includes no mention of jails or prisons.

Even in the face of a global pandemic, the United States remains deeply wedded to mass incarceration.


Containing COVID-19: Jails, Prisons Ripe for Spread

Early in the pandemic, reports characterized the Cook County Jail as a congregate setting hot spot for the coronavirus.

Sheriff Tom Dart’s office disputes that, and said it’s because the jail was doing testing for COVID-19 before other places, so it’s not a fair measurement.

Regardless, Dart and the jail’s medical director Dr. Connie Mennella say they took quick action to contain the virus – temperature checks, mask mandates, moving detainees to single occupancy cells, more testing – and got it under control such that the positivity rate at the jail is now lower than it is in wider Cook County.

But as cases are exploding outside, they’re ticking up within the jail.


Justice For Black Lives

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson introduced the “Justice for Black Lives” resolution, which calls on the County Board to redirect money previously spent on Cook County Jail to the Black and Brown communities most harmed by mass incarceration.

While the resolution was being introduced and discussed, hundreds of people rallied outside Cook County Jail.



Join us for a car caravan and socially distanced rally calling on the Cook County Board and President Toni Preckwinkle to defund the Cook County Jail and invest that money in Black communities.

Meet in front of Cook County Jail at 2700 S. California Ave. Thursday, June 18th from 9:30-11am.



Across the world, the impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic has increased with each passing day.

The highly contagious respiratory illness has been deadly for many, especially the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Across the United States, elected officials are taking unprecedented steps to protect the most vulnerable people in their communities and contain the spread of the virus.

People incarcerated in jail are one of the most vulnerable populations, and their protection warrants special emergency action.

Jails and prisons are known to quickly spread contagious diseases. Incarcerated people have an inherently limited ability to fight the spread of infectious disease since they are confined in close quarters and unable to avoid contact with people who may have been exposed.

Responses such as lock downs, placing people in solitary confinement and limiting access to visits from loved ones are punitive and ineffective responses to outbreaks. Importantly, we know that isolation further endangers people and limiting visitation also has adverse effects.

The only acceptable response to the threat of COVID-19 is decarceration.

Today there are more than 5,500 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail (CCJ). Almost all of them are still awaiting trial and thus presumed innocent under the law.

Their ongoing incarceration is an unacceptable risk to every incarcerated individual as well as public health.



In an article released today, the Chicago Tribune has attacked Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) for paying bond for people who cannot afford it themselves.

As much as this is an attack on pretrial freedom, it is also a defense of a two-tiered justice system, one that grants privileges to the wealthy while punishing people for poverty. This article is merely the latest in a series of racist, fearmongering attacks on pretrial justice reforms from the Tribune.

Last year, a Tribune columnist backed the FOP, calling for money bonds to be used as a form of pretrial punishment. More recently, the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board suggested it was acceptable for a man with mental health needs to face serious illness and death in Cook County Jail because he had previously missed a court date.

They doubled down on this message in a second editorial last week, saying, “The best advice for staying healthy [during the pandemic] is to avoid trouble with the law.”

Like the articles before it, this piece continues to use exceptional cases to rationalize the unjust incarceration of tens of thousands of people. The 162 cases examined by the Tribune between February 2017 and February 2020 in fact represent just one quarter of one percent (~.27%) of the approximately 60,000 people released pretrial in those three years.

This sort of racialized fearmongering is what built mass incarceration, and it is what maintains it.

As we have said time and time again, policy cannot be made from a place of fear. We must remember that for every tragic story the Chicago Tribune tells in which someone is harmed, there are tens of thousands of other stories about families reunited, evictions avoided, employment retained, access to life-saving healthcare accessed, and people who were not coerced into taking plea deals simply to get out of a cage.



In collaboration with the Chicago Community Bond Fund during the COVID-19 pandemic, For the People Artists Collective is curating a virtual quilt to memorialize individuals who have died of COVID-19 while in the custody of Cook County Jail.

Cook County Jail has been named by the New York Times as the “top hot spot” in the nation’s pandemic.

Over 300 people incarcerated there have tested positive for COVID-19, and the rate of infection has climbed to 68 out of every 1,000 people.

As artists and cultural workers, we know that mainstream media narrative consistently dehumanizes the lives lost within the state’s walls, often providing very little more than a duplication of their arrest report or criminal histories.

We believe no one’s life is disposable, and any death from COVID-19 that happens in custody was absolutely a preventable death.



Jason Hammond walked into Chicago’s Cook County Jail last month with a stack of cashier’s checks totaling $75,000. The volunteer for the Chicago Community Bond Fund was bailing out eight inmates at once, his largest group yet in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re not just fighting for a few people, we’re fighting for everyone to be bonded out,” Hammond told CBS News. “We were doing that before the coronavirus, but now it feels like a double emergency. The cases in prisons are about to explode.”

Community bond funds are working overtime as experts warn how quickly disease can spread inside jails. The organizations typically rely on private and small donors to assist those who can’t make their cash bail. Criminal justice reform advocates argue the public health crisis is highlighting wealth inequality, as an estimated 450,000 people sit behind bars because they’re unable to afford the payment.

The majority of those in jail are being held for pretrial detention, meaning the individual has not been convicted or sentenced. Attorney General William Barr recently ordered U.S. attorneys  against seeking pretrial detentions “to the same degree we would under normal circumstances.”

While not all of those detained pretrial are subject to a money bond, the majority is considered to be.

“We don’t want to be in the position of having to purchase people’s freedom,” added Sharlyn Grace, the executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “The ongoing use of money bonds is creating different justice systems for people with access to money and people without access to money.”



Sharlyn Grace knew coronavirus was going to be a problem.

So on March 6—well before most of the nation was aware of the havoc the virus would wreak—Grace and her team at the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) put out their first statement calling for the decarceration of the city’s Cook County Jail, the largest single jail site in the U.S.

“We shouldn’t be giving people death sentences by carelessly exposing them to this incredibly dangerous illness,” Grace told Newsweek.

The CCBF is a largely volunteer organization that helps cover bond costs for those who can’t afford it. Grace helped found the group in 2014 during the Black Lives Matter movement and serves as its executive director.

Now, all hands are on deck to get as many people out of the jail during the pandemic. Edward Vogel, a volunteer with the group, said Grace has been working nonstop to avert a crisis that could “destabilize the health care system in Chicago.”

Jails and prisons are like a petri dish for COVID-19 and other diseases like it.

Jails in particular have an extremely high turnover rate, with people coming and going nearly every day. Access to cleaning and hygiene supplies are limited, and hand sanitizer is often considered contraband.


On the afternoon of Friday, March 20, 2020, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli filed an emergency petition calling for the mass release of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail to protect their health and the health of the public in the wake of COVID-19.

The petition lists several categories of people who should be released, which largely mirror the demands for release supported by CCBF and more than 70 community organizations, including:

  1. All persons who are at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, either because of age and/or because of underlying health conditions;
  2. All pregnant women;
  3. All persons who are being confined on misdemeanor charges, felony charges as to which they are probationable or non-violent felony charges, including in particular all non-violent class 3 and class 4 felony charges;
  4. All persons who are being confined following a judicial determination that they are bailable, but who remain in Jail because they cannot pay the money bond set in their cases;
  5. All persons who are being confined following arrest on a warrant or upon an allegation of parole or probation violation and who are not charged with or suspected of a crime of violence;
  6. All persons serving sentences of imprisonment in the Jail;
  7. All persons who are eligible for release only if they satisfy the conditions of electronic monitoring but who remain in the Jail because they have “no place to stay.”

An amicus brief in support of the mass release petition was filed on behalf of Chicago Community Bond Fund, The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Illinois Justice Project, and Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justicewith an additional 26 advocacy, community, and legal organizations joining in support.

The amicus puts into perspective the seriousness of COVID-19 and the magnitude of the risk it presents to people incarcerated in Cook County Jail and the broader Cook County community.