As COVID-19 Rips Through Cook County Jail, Time To Take A Hard Look In The Mirror

Whatever your opinions are regarding the ways we address the growing use of pretrial detention in America, I hope you’ll see that what is happening in Cook County Jail right now far exceeds the issue of bail. What we have is a human crisis that calls for action, compassion and courage.

This month, the jail hit an all-time high of more than 300 COVID-19 cases among the incarcerated population, and dozens among the jail staff. Scores of residents and public servants funnel in and out of the facility every day and return home to their communities. A hotspot at the jail creates a risk for all. Since the first COVID-19 case at the jail was reported in March, more than 1,100 people have tested positive inside the facility. Now with winter upon us, the jail’s infection totals have climbed back to April levels.

This threat to public health dictates that we must exhaust all avenues to drastically reduce the population of roughly 5,500 so social distancing is even an option inside the facility.

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Officials Did Nothing To Prevent Latest Coronavirus Outbreak In Jail

Correctional officers and advocates for incarcerated people say little has been done to prepare Cook County Jail for a winter wave of coronavirus cases, despite the sheriff’s assurances.

The Teamsters Local 700 union, which represents nearly 3,000 correctional officers at the jail, said Sheriff Tom Dart — who now has the virus himself — is downplaying the crisis as the jail’s COVID-19 outbreak swells and its population grows.

“While Sheriff Dart parades in front of TV cameras, our officers are not receiving proper protective equipment and are being forced to interact with inmates who are not wearing masks,” said union Vice President Anthony McGee.

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THE JAIL CYCLE: Spreading COVID-19

New research has found that nearly one in six cases of COVID-19 in Chicago and Illinois can be connected to people moving through the Cook County Jail, which at one point was dubbed the largest-known source of coronavirus cases in the U.S.

According to a new study published Thursday in the journal Health Affairs, cycling through Cook County Jail is associated with 15.7% of all documented cases of the virus in Illinois and 15.9% in Chicago through mid-April.

“As the pandemic began, I realized this was going to be a huge driver,” Eric Reinhart, a University of Chicago researcher who co-authored the report, told WTTW.

“The jail cycle – arresting people, cycling through the jail and back into their communities – was going to be a huge driver of COVID-19 spreading to communities.”

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IN-PERSON VISITATION RESUMES AT COOK COUNTY JAIL

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced that in-person family visits have resumed at the Cook County Jail for the first time in nearly three months due to the continuing trend of low COVID-19 cases at the Cook County Department of Corrections.

“We have worked hard to find alternative methods to allow families to stay in touch with detainees, but nothing can replace seeing loved ones face-to-face, and that only adds to the already significant stress experienced by the families of those incarcerated,” Sheriff Dart said, in a statement. “We believe this is not only beneficial for those in our custody, but also for our staff, since it reduces anxiety among detainees.”

Visitation hours will be held from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day including weekends, weather permitting, and DOC staff expect to facilitate approximately 100 visits daily.

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CARVAN: DEFUND 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.

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TSURU FOR SOLIDARITY

Organizers of the Chicago action said they chose Cook County Jail because they felt the Japanese American community’s experience with mass incarceration during World War II holds lessons for how to handle the coronavirus outbreak in the jail.

“We saw what was happening, and it reminded us of how many people in the World War II incarceration camps died because of medical neglect. We want as many people as possible to be released to prevent more loss of life.”

The demonstration was part of a national social justice movement called Tsuru For Solidarity.

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PRISONS: Indifference Won’t Stop The Pandemic

What happens inside will inevitably influence what happens outside. Any outbreak within our jails and prisons can cascade into the community.

Once COVID-19 spreads throughout a facility, the burden of caring for these sick people will necessarily shift to local community medical facilities. Large numbers of seriously ill incarcerated individuals will strain overtaxed hospitals, increasing everyone’s morbidity and mortality.

As of April 8, Chicago’s Cook County Jail was the top cluster for the virus that causes COVID-19.

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COVID-19 PRISON NUMBERS: The Math Of Fear

In the federal prison system, which incarcerates more than 150,000 people, a little under 2% of inmates have been tested, and 70% of those tested have been found to be positive.

At the Cook County jail the infection rate is 7%. In the New York City jails it is 8%. At Parnall Correctional Facility in Michigan, 10% of inmates and 21% of staff have tested positive.

And at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio — the largest hotspot in the country — more than 2000 inmates have tested positive — about 80% of the prison’s inmates.

In many parts of America the coronavirus outbreak behind bars is far more widespread than previously believed.

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SHERIFF TOM DART SLOW WALKS COVID-19 DEATH SENTENCE

“It has become apparent that plaintiffs’ counsel has been singularly focused on categorial release at all costs—arguably pursuing a political decarceration policy through misuse of the legal process in the middle of a pandemic,” attorneys for the sheriff’s office argued in a 28-page brief filed late Monday.

As of yesterday, according to the office, the virus had sickened 534 detainees and killed seven.

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AMERICA’S HEINOUS PANDEMIC: For Profit Prisons

“The industry behind mass incarceration is bigger than many appreciate. So is the harm they cause and the power they wield. They exploit and abuse people with devastating consequences.”

A new report by New York-based advocacy group Worth Rises detailed some 4,100 corporations that profit from the country’s prisons and jails. It identified corporations that support prison labor directly or through their supply chains.

The group also recommended divesting from more than 180 publicly traded corporations and investment firms considered to cause the greatest harm to people behind bars and the communities that support them.

The report includes vendors that stock commissaries with Cup Noodles and Tide laundry detergent, along with contracted health care providers that have been sued for providing limited or inadequate coverage to those behind bars.

There are companies like Smith & Wesson that make protective gear for correctional officers and Attenti that supply electronic ankle bracelets. Other household names, such as Stanley Black & Decker, have entire units dedicated to manufacturing accessories for prison doors.

Incarcerated people also work, making everything from license plates to body armor vests and mattresses. In California, some even serve as firefighters. But in some places, they are employed by major corporations such as Minnesota-based 3M.

Billed as a cheap alternative to foreign outsourcing, inmates also previously provided goods to Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods, sparking an uproar.

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