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
A Just Harvest
AIDS Foundation of Chicago
American Friends Service Committee Chicago
Arab American Action Network
Believers Bail Out
Black Lives Matter: Chicago
Black and Pink Chicago
Black And Pink PDX
Blue Tin Productions
Brave Space Alliance
Capoeira Angola Foundation- Chicago
Chicago Afro-Socialists and Socialists of Color
Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression
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 Renewal Society
Criminal Justice Policy Program
DSA Libertarian Socialist Caucus
First Defense Legal Aid
For the People Artists Collective
Free Write Arts & Literacy
Gay Liberation Network
Giving Others Dreams God
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 Voice for Peace
John Howard Association
Justice for Our Neighbors Northern Illinois
La Casa Norte
Lawndale Christian Legal Center
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 Parsons Labs
Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration
National Lawyers Guild – Chicago
National Lawyers Guild of Loyola University
Nehemiah Trinity Rising
Northside Action for Justice
Organized Communities Against Deportations
People’s Law Office
The People’s Lobby
Precious Blood Ministry Of Reconciliation
Radical Public Health (UIC)
Rising Tide Chicago
The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center
Rogers Park Solidarity Network
Shiller Preyar Gerard & Samuels
Shriver Center on Poverty Law
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 Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild
UIC John Marshall Law School 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
- The Coronavirus Could Spark a Humanitarian Disaster in Jails and Prisons
- Correctional Facilities Are the Perfect Incubators for the Coronavirus
- Prisons and jails are vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks
- What Happens To People’s Legal Cases As Coronavirus Shuts Down Courts?
- COVID-19 Response Guidance for Community Bail & Bond Funds from The National Bail Fund Network
- Humanity Not Cages: Demanding a Just & Humane Response to Outbreak from numerous signatories
- No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform from Prison Policy Initiative
- COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Response & Resources from The Justice Collaborative
Current Demands Regarding Jails in Other Jurisdictions
- San Francisco Officials Push to Reduce Jail Population to Prevent Coronavirus Outbreak (San Francisco, CA)
- Public defenders request the release of all non-violent offenders in jail due to coronavirus (New Orleans, LA)
- Nashville Public Defender: Release Vulnerable Defendants Without Bail (Nashville, TN)
Re: Illinois State Prison System
- Pritzker should release elderly, ailing prisoners from state jails amid coronavirus outbreak, activists say (Chicago Sun-Times)
- Illinois must show compassion when coronavirus hits our elderly prison population (op-ed)
- IL-CHEP Letter to Governor J.B Pritzker on Coronavirus in Illinois Prisons (open letter)
- COVID-19 in Prisons: Mitigating a Disaster (joint response and resource guide)