CORONAVIRUS: The Prison Tsunami

Despite early warnings, jails and prisons have seen a rapid spread of the virus — a humanitarian disaster that puts all of our communities, and lives, at risk.

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system — overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks.

Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus.



Kyle Mullica came to Chicago to fight COVID-19 on the front lines, picking one of the hottest spots in the city: the Cook County Jail.

“It was intense. It was a lot of hours. It was difficult being away from my family,” said Mullica, a registered nurse who works in the emergency room of a Colorado hospital.

He put his skills to use in Division 10, working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, totaling five weeks straight.

“There’s this sense of duty, and a sense of calling on things like this. I wanted to use the skill that I had,” said Mullica, who also serves as a state representative in Colorado.

So with his wife’s support, he left home.


COOK COUNTY JAIL: Steady Decrease In COVID-19

Fewer people have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past month at Cook County Jail, officials announced Friday.

The rate of positive COVID-19 tests has gone from 97% to less than 10% since March, Cook County Health officials said in a statement. Since May 8, most of the new cases have come from detainees entering the jail, rather than people who were already in custody, officials said.

They credited the decline to interventions implemented since the beginning of the year, including opening unused divisions to accommodate social distancing, converting available cells to single-occupancy and enhanced testing.

“As we watched this pandemic approach Cook County, we understood the potential impact it could have at the jail and worked with our public safety partners,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in the statement.

“This was both the right thing to do for these individuals and the right thing to do to mitigate spread inside the jail.”



Chicago hip-hop artist G Herbo is partnering with Alliance for Safety and Justice, a California-based criminal justice advocacy organization to donate 20,000 PPE protective masks to the Cook County Jail at 5 p.m. Thursday, organizers said.

The donation is made possible through the ASJ and its subsidiary project “Time Done,” which aims to knock down legal barriers that previously incarcerated people often face such as access to housing, education and employment.

G Herbo isn’t the only Chicago hip-hop luminary who’s giving back to a community in a time of need.

Earlier this week, activist and rapper Common called attention to how the pandemic poses a health risk to millions of incarcerated people in the U.S. via his criminal justice reform organization Imagine Justice in a campaign dubbed #WeMatterToo.



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.

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.

“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.”



Nobody calls Correctional Officers “Essential.” How convenient.

A Cook County correctional officer has died of apparent COVID-19-related complications. Officer Antoine Jones died Sunday after being diagnosed with coronavirus.

He was 51.

According to his family, Jones was a diabetic and was in the hospital for weeks battling the virus. He eventually suffered from cardiac arrest.



Documents recently released by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office reveal numerous incidents of prisoner-led protest and rebellion against guards and staff in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak at the facility.

As of May 6, more than 500 detainees at the Cook County Jail have tested positive for Covid-19 and 7 have died, according to statistics gathered by Injustice Watch and documents filed in court.

On April 3, a group of detainees at the facility filed a class action lawsuit petitioning the court to order the Sheriff’s department to take immediate measures to improve health and sanitation at the facility, including by transferring or releasing to “some other form of custody” those detainees most vulnerable to the virus.

On April 9, US District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly granted, in part, the detainee’s petition for a temporary restraining order, ordering the Sheriff’s Department to provide soap and hand sanitizer to detainees and institute the sanitation of surfaces, refrain from the use of “bullpens” for holding detainees in large groups, institute effective testing measures for Covid-19, and distribute face masks to detainees, all within two to three days time.



Coordinating a release can happen the right way in communities where there is already a good relationship between the local health department and the correctional facility.

Questions to consider include: What’s the safest place for the person to go? Do they need support?

Many communities are, for example, reserving and buying or renting housing for people being released.



We are calling on the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to take additional steps to dramatically lower the number of people in jail in response to COVID-19. Specifically, the office should:

1. Decline to file new charges in cases that do not involve danger to a specific person;

2. Agree to release most people seeking bond reviews from custody without payment of money;

3. Immediately dismiss all pending misdemeanors and class 4 felony cases not involving danger to a specific person, starting with cases in which people are in jail; and

4. Cease filing violations of probation and violations of bail bonds for technical violations or reasons not involving danger to a specific person.



Prisons and jails are fast becoming an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, for instance, the New York Times reported that Cook County jail was “now the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections.” After far too much lost time, some governors and criminal justice officials are finally trying to mitigate the damage by releasing inmates or transferring them to home confinement.

To succeed, these steps must extend to prisoners with violent records.

This should be obvious based on sheer numbers. People with violent convictions make up a majority of the total state prison population. Because sentences for violent crimes are longer, they make up an even larger percentage of the older detainees most vulnerable to COVID-19: about two out of every three prisoners over age 55.

So far, this reality is being ignored. Efforts to move people out of prisons and jails have mainly focused on the lowest-hanging fruit: those detained for inability to pay bail, technical parole violations, minor misdemeanors, and the like.

Almost all these measures have excluded people convicted of violent crimes.

Many prepandemic criminal justice reforms have also focused on nonviolent offenders only, so we shouldn’t be surprised. For many, people with violent convictions seem dangerous, and the idea of granting them any kind of relief is simply anathema.