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.


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.



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.”



“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.



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.



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.