Open Letter to Cook County Regarding COVID-19 and Cook County Jail: Protect Public Health through Decarceration

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.

Jails have extremely high turnover rates. Many people are released and admitted every day, and thousands of employees travel in and out of Cook County Jail each week. It is not a matter of if coronavirus and COVID-19 infect CCJ but when. As few people as possible should be exposed to this dangerous inevitability.

The following steps should be taken to protect the health of all Cook County residents, including those incarcerated in Cook County Jail and in their homes on electronic monitoring:

  • Cook County should immediately release anyone incarcerated in Cook County Jail on an unaffordable money bond (and not onto electronic monitoring unless already ordered by a judge). If a judge has given someone a money bond, it means that they’ve determined the person is cleared for release pretrial. Their ongoing incarceration due solely to access to money is deeply unfair and unethical, especially during this pandemic.
  • No new people should be admitted to Cook County Jail on money bonds. Admission of as many people as possible should be avoided.
  • The courts should provide emergency bond reviews for all incarcerated people who request them with an increased mandate to use all options other than incarceration.
  • Cook County should immediately release individuals over the age of 50 or with compromised immune systems from Cook County Jail. Research has shown that these individuals are at the highest risk for contracting and experiencing the most serious effects of COVID-19.
  • The Cook County Sheriff’s Office and Pretrial Services Division should immediately change their protocols around electronic monitoring (EM) and home confinement to permit liberal movement (the ability to leave one’s home). Currently, people on Sheriff’s EM are required to provide documentation of a scheduled doctor’s visit to be granted the ability to leave their home. They are routinely denied permission to go to the grocery store or leave their homes to perform other essential tasks of life. The Sheriff’s office typically requires 72 hours advance notice to review and approve these requests. Gaining this documentation for a medical visit can often be extremely difficult due to privacy protections placed on medical providers and the difficulty of obtaining a letter over the phone. We are calling on the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to allow for automatically approved movement to allow people on EM to obtain groceries and other supplies, seek medical treatment, collect school meals, and provide elder and child care in other households. The 12 hours of movement per day policy, now guaranteed to all people on mandatory supervised release (“parole”) by the Illinois Department of Corrections, should be treated as the least possible movement allowed during the pandemic.
  • The ability to pay money bonds and secure pretrial release for people currently incarcerated in the jail or on EM should not be delayed or inhibited in any way. 
  • People eligible for electronic monitoring must continue to be released into the community.  If a person is ordered to EM but does not have access to approved housing, they should be immediately returned to court for a rehearing on their conditions of release.
  • If courts remain open, appearance at non-essential criminal court dates should be waived to avoid unnecessary travel and social contact. All in-person pretrial check-ins or other mandated appearances (such as drug testing) should also be waived.
  • Cancellation of court dates should not delay anyone’s release from Cook County Jail. Given that 70% of people released from Cook County Jail return directly to the community, any failure to resolve court cases at the same pace will increase the number of people in jail and thus the threat to their individual health and public health.
  • A moratorium should be placed on “turnarounds,” the process by which someone sentenced to time served travels from CCJ to an Illinois Department of Corrections facility to dress in and dress out on the same day. People sentenced to time served should be released directly from Cook County Jail.
  • Health care access for anyone remaining in Cook County Jail must be liberally provided and unfettered.
  • Access to phone calls and video “visitation” should be expanded for all incarcerated people right now and moving forward. This access should be provided free of charge.
  • The right to vote must be protected for anyone who remains incarcerated pretrial.
  • Personal hygiene, cleaning, and sanitation supplies should be made available free of charge to anyone that remains incarcerated. Hand sanitizer and other essential preventative products must be permitted and should not be considered “contraband.”

Signed, (list in formation)

Chicago Community Bond Fund

ACLU of Illinois

Action Now

A Just Harvest

AIDS Foundation of Chicago

AirGo

American Friends Service Committee Chicago

Arab American Action Network

Assata’s Daughters

Believers Bail Out

Black Lives Matter: Chicago

Black and Pink Chicago

Black And Pink PDX

Blue Tin Productions

Brave Space Alliance

BYP100

Capoeira Angola Foundation- Chicago

Chicago Afro-Socialists and Socialists of Color

Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression

Chicago Appleseed

Chicago Feminist Action Group

Chicago Freedom School

Chicago-Kent College of Law Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild

Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights​

Chicago Teachers Union

Chicago Torture Justice Center

Chicago Votes Action Fund

The Children and Family Justice Center

Circles & Ciphers

Coalition to End Money Bond

Columbus Freedom Fund

Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine

Community Cave

Community Renewal Society

Criminal Justice Policy Program

Dissenters

DSA Libertarian Socialist Caucus

Exoneration Project

First Defense Legal Aid

For the People Artists Collective

Free Write Arts & Literacy

Gay Liberation Network

Giving Others Dreams God

Grassroots Collaborative

Greater Chicago IWW

Human Impact Partners

Illinois Environmental Council

Illinois Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC-IL)

Indivisible Chicago Alliance

Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)

Interfaith Action Group for a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel

Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

Jewish Voices for Peace

John Howard Association

Justice for Our Neighbors Northern Illinois

Kuumba Lynx

La Casa Norte

LADhoc Accounting

Lawndale Christian Legal Center

#LetUsBreathe

Liberation Library

Lifted Voices

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)​

Live Free Chicago

Local 3315 Cook County Public Defender’s Union

Loevy & Loevy

Logan Square Neighborhood Association

Loyola University Chicago School of Law Public Interest Law Society 

Love & Protect

Lucy Parson’s Labs

Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration

National Lawyers Guild – Chicago

National Lawyers Guild of Loyola University

Nehemiah Trinity Rising

Network 49

Northside Action for Justice

ONE Northside

Organized Communities Against Deportations

People’s Law Office

The People’s Lobby 

Pilsen Alliance

Precious Blood Ministry Of Reconciliation​

Radical Public Health (UIC)

Restore Justice

Rising Tide Chicago

The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center

Rogers Park Solidarity Network

Shiller Preyar Gerard & Samuels

Shriver Center on Poverty Law

Slutwalk Chicago

Smart Decarceration Project

Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL)

Students for Sensible Drug Policy

Transgender Law Center

Transformative Justice Law Project

Trinity United Church of Christ

UIC John Marshall Law School Black Law Students Association

UIC John Marshall Law School Public Interest Law Council

UIC John Marshall Law School Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild

UIC John Marshall–Public Interest Law Council

UIC John Marshall Law School South Asian Law Association

UIC John Marshall Law School United Immigration Defense Organization of Students

Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry of Illinois

United Methodist Women

Uptown People’s Law Center

Westside Justice Center

Women’s Justice Institute

Working Family Solidarity

Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP)

RESOURCES FOR LEARNING MORE

About the Coronavirus and Jails

Current Demands Regarding Jails in Other Jurisdictions

Re: Illinois State Prison System


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