The Cook County Jail in Chicago is one of the largest in the country.

Sprawling across 96 acres on the Southwest Side, the facility houses more than 4,000 people, most awaiting trial. Its cramped living conditions made it a perfect petri dish for COVID-19.

Today, the jail is home to one of the largest known outbreaks in the country and has been a flashpoint in the national debate over how to contain the virus in correctional facilities. More than 9,400 cases have emerged in prisons across the U.S., according to an analysis by The Marshall Project. In the Cook County Jail, nearly 500 detainees and more than 300 correctional officers have tested positive.

Seven people have died: six inmates and one guard.

Sheriff Tom Dart is now under fire for his oversight of the jail in the era of coronavirus. In a federal lawsuit, civil rights attorneys have blamed him for failing to curtail what they have called a “rapidly escalating public health disaster,” and the judge in that case has ordered Dart to improve sanitation, to expand social distancing and to report back on his progress.

At the same time, the judge said Dart had made a “significant, and impressive, effort to safeguard detained persons in his custody from infection by coronavirus.”

Dart has repeatedly defended his handling of the health crisis.

While citing unique challenges — like weighing if a detainee might use hygiene supplies as a weapon, as one allegedly did this month by using soap inside a sock in an attack— he has maintained that his office has “been in front of this pandemic every step of the way,” from screening new admissions for the virus to supplying staff and detainees with hand sanitizer to educating detainees about social distancing.



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.



Prisoners say the jail, which has seen more than 800 confirmed cases, is a death trap plagued by sanitary issues and a lack of testing. Their testimonies stand at stark odds with the sheriff’s office, which says it is keeping staff and detainees as safe as possible.

The Cook County Jail in Chicago, America’s largest single-site pretrial detention facility, is now one of the top coronavirus hot spots in the nation.

Despite an April 9 order from a federal judge requiring Sheriff Tom Dart to provide COVID-19 testing for symptomatic prisoners, implement social distancing, and distribute adequate sanitation and personal hygienic supplies, more than two dozen detainees interviewed by attorneys, advocates, and reporters in the last two weeks describe living conditions conducive to the spread of the virus and a lack of access to testing.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly issued a preliminary injunction ordering the sheriff to do more.

To date, the sheriff’s office has reported more than 800 confirmed cases of the virus, more than half of them among prisoners. So far, six prisoners and one guard have died of COVID-19.



Nicholas Lee, age 42, died of COVID-19 on April 13 while awaiting trial in the Cook County Jail. He was the third person to die of COVID-19 while jailed, and 353 incarcerated people and 261 staff have since then tested positive.

“I feel like I lost the battle for my husband,” Lee’s widow told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Most people in Cook County Jail have not been convicted of any crime, and are being held because they don’t have the money to post bail. But even as the number of people in the jail who are sick with COVID-19 increases, another week has passed without significant action by county officials to reduce the jail population.

Social distancing is impossible in the crowded and unsanitary confines of the jail, which is now one of the foremost sites of the pandemic in the nation. Close quarters create a kind of Russian roulette death penalty for people awaiting trial. COVID-19 cases soon could overwhelm the jail’s health systems, creating chaos and making the facility difficult to secure.

County leaders must rapidly find ways to responsibly release people and provide housing and safe quarantine outside of the jail.



Cook County Jail in Chicago must do more to ensure social distancing among its 4,000 inmates to stem the spread of the coronavirus that’s already killed six detainees and one guard at the facility, a federal judge ruled Monday.

Judge Matthew Kennelly stopped short of mandating a process that would lead to the release of older inmates and those with underlying health conditions more susceptible to dying from COVID-19.

The southwest Chicago jail — one of the nation’s largest — has already taken measures to limit close contact, including by creating more single-occupancy cells and providing more reading material to inmates to encourage them to stay in their cells and away from common areas, Kennelly noted.



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.



Kelly Halverson, 48, doesn’t know the next time she’ll see her fiancé, Mike Stevens. He’s serving 17 years on a drug conviction at FCI Sandstone, a low-security federal prison in Minnesota.

In normal times, she sees him once or twice a month, far less than she’d like.

Sandstone is a four-hour drive from her home in Port Edwards, Wisconsin, and with bad weather it can take even longer. “Seeing him in person is what keeps me sane,” she said. “It’s the place where our dreams, hopes, and plans are laid out. It’s the place where we have our deepest connection.”

Halverson last saw Stevens on February 22. Since then, overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions have placed the US incarceration system on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing is often impossible, and many inmates reportedly lack access to hand sanitizer and protective gear.

Cases of Covid-19 are increasing rapidly.

As of April 8, The New York Times had identified at least 1,324 confirmed Covid-19 infections inside in prisons and jails, numbers it said were “most likely a vast undercount”; according to data compiled by the Marshall Project, there had been at least 63 deaths by April 16.

Although thousands have been released early to slow the outbreak, about 2 million people remain incarcerated.



This form is issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Equity Team. Our purpose is “to stop the spread of the Coronavirus in communities of color and vulnerable populations and to better understand and address the social determinants of health that contribute to the disproportionate cases and fatalities of the Coronavirus.”

As prisons, jails and detention centers are quickly becoming the epicenter of the novel Coronavirus, every person incarcerated in Illinois is a part of a “vulnerable population.”

As Illinois’ carceral facilities disproportionately hold people of color to an extreme degree, the Equity Team has a special obligation to do what it takes to protect the lives of people in our state’s custody, and in custody within our state. Success in this area is not only essential to the Equity Team’s overall goal of protecting the vulnerable and communities of color, it is the place where our state has the most control, and therefore responsibility, to protect the health and lives of the vulnerable.

Therefore, we commit to supplying actionable recommendations to the appropriate authorities that are based in science and public health, not politics or ideology.



A federal judge Monday ordered Sheriff Thomas Dart to move most Cook County Jail detainees into single cells to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the massive Southwest Side facility that has been identified as one of the nation’s top coronavirus hot spots.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly’s 87-page order follows last week’s testimony in a class action lawsuit seeking the release or transfer of elderly and medically compromised detainees.

Dart’s lawyers argued Thursday that jail staff was struggling to keep up with changing guidance from federal authorities about how to tackle the contagion.

As of Sunday night, 461 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19, and six died from complications related to the virus. More than 300 jail employees, including a corrections officer who died, also tested positive for coronavirus.

While Kennelly did not order the release of the detainees Monday, he mandated single cells for most of whom live in dormitory style bunk rooms or cells built for two.

The judge did say some could still live in group settings. Group housing is still allowed in quarantined tiers with detainees who have been exposed to the virus, those separated because they’ve shown symptoms or tested positive, those who are recovering from COVID-19, and those living in dorms that can be kept below 50% of their capacity.



The news from the nation’s prisons and jails is increasingly grim. On Sunday, there were reports that 1,828 people incarcerated at Marion County Correctional Facility in Ohio, 73% of its total population, have tested positive for COVID-19.

One staff member has died and another 109 have tested positive.

Similar reports are coming in from federal and state facilities across the country. But this crisis in our criminal justice system isn’t due to the coronavirus. Rather, the pandemic is exposing a pre-existing crisis in our prisons that we are long overdue to fix.

In April 2019, the Justice Department issued a damning report concluding that conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons were so bad that there was probable cause to believe that incarceration in the state’s prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The state’s prisons were old and decrepit.

There were clogged toilets, mold-covered showers and inadequate hot water. In January 2020, Alabama’s prisons were at 170% capacity, the most overcrowded in the nation. One facility, Holman Prison, was in such bad condition that it was partially closed in January, after investigators learned of open sewage in the prison and prisoners reported rats roaming around and maggots in the kitchens.

While Alabama’s failings may be extreme, the state is not alone. Problems in the nation’s federal and state prisons as well as its jails have been well documented.

In facilities throughout the country, incarcerated people have no opportunity to engage in frequent handwashing, obtain masks that could prevent the spread of infection or maintain a safe distance from others with contagious diseases.

This country’s jails and prisons were not prepared to contain an outbreak of the common cold, let alone a pandemic.