Community Organizing in Response to COVID19 Pandemic Leads to 1,000 Fewer People Incarcerated in Cook County Jail

 In General

CCBF first raised the alarm about the threat COVID-19 posed to people incarcerated in Cook County Jail on March 6th. The following week, on March 13th, we were joined by more than 25 advocacy, community, and legal organizations and unions in publishing an open letter demanding the mass release of people incarcerated in the jail. That call has now been endorsed by more than 100 organizations. These demands have also been made by thousands of individuals across Cook County who flooded the phone lines and email inboxes of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, and Sheriff Tom Dart. 

When we launched our campaign on March 13th, there were 5,576 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail (CCJ). One week later, there were just 85 fewer people in CCJ. On March 20th, CCBF and more than 20 other community organizations signed onto an amicus brief filed in support of a petition for mass release filed by the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. Prior to the hearing of the petition, we worked with The People’s Lobby, A Just Harvest, and the Illinois Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to hold a socially distanced prayer vigil outside Cook County Jail. Later that same week, we worked with Believers Bail Out and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights to pay more than $120,000 in bonds. This act of solidarity freed 22 people while highlighting the outrageous number of people still incarcerated in the jail due to their financial circumstances, the limits of philanthropy in addressing this crisis, and the need for elected officials to take more significant action.

In the wake of these actions, the number of people in Cook County Jail has now dropped by almost 1,000 people, reaching 4,661 on April 3rd. While the county still must take further action to protect public health, our collective actions have had a substantial impact. We remain committed to pushing for the release of as many people as possible.

It is important to note that this decrease is not attributable only to actions taken by elected officials. Many of these individuals were released only because their loved ones pooled together their resources to pay the ransom being demanded in exchange for their freedom. Others were released because they were coerced into accepting plea deals to protect their health. 

While our elected officials may declare “mission accomplished” and congratulate themselves for their limited and slow actions, we must not stop fighting for those who remain incarcerated inside the health hazard that is Cook County Jail. More than 4,500 people remain incarcerated in the jail today, and more are admitted every day. Their lives are at risk. Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at Cook County Jail was confirmed on March 23rd, the rate of infection has dramatically increased. As of today, 45 out of every 1,000 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Just one week ago, the infection rate was 7.6 out of every 1,000 people incarcerated at the jail. The infection rate inside the jail is 40 times higher than the rate in Cook County as a whole, which is just 1.1 positive case per 1,000 people.

We need more people to be released, and we need more commitments to policy changes that will prevent people from being admitted into the jail during this pandemic. Anything short of a significant decrease in the number of people in Cook County Jail will cause more lives to be lost.

Stay tuned for a big announcement this Monday as we continue to push for the mass release of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail.

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