Federal Court to Hold Hearing on Adequacy of Cook County Jail’s Social Distancing Measures

This Thursday, April 23, 2020, a federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois will hear arguments on whether or not precautions being taken by Cook County Jail are constitutionally adequate. Attorneys representing people incarcerated in Cook County Jail will argue that social distancing is essential to protect the health of people incarcerated in the jail and constitutionally required.

More than 4,200 people remain incarcerated in the health hazard that is Cook County Jail. It is impossible for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to meet their constitutionally mandated duty to keep people in custody safe from COVID-19 under these conditions. Further steps must be taken to protect the lives of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail

Thursday’s evidentiary hearing is the latest development in the Mays vs. Dart lawsuit challenging conditions in Cook County Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 9th, Judge Kennelly ordered Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to implement policies ensuring sanitation, testing, social distancing at intake, and the distribution of personal protective equipment to incarcerated people. Declarations filed Sunday on behalf of the plaintiffs contend that the situation inside Cook County Jail remains dire despite the judge’s order.  

Announcement of the hearing comes one day after the Sheriff’s Office announced the death of Karl Battiste, the fourth person to die from COVID-19 while in the custody of Cook County Jail. Less than 24 hours after this hearing was set, two more people died of COVID-19 while in the custody of Cook County Jail: 42-year-old Rene Olivo and 53-year-old Juan Salgado Mendoza. In the past four weeks, 395 people incarcerated in the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. If Sheriff’s staff are included, nearly 700 people associated with Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Advocates believe that many more people have contracted the virus but that inadequate testing has resulted in lower-than-actual reported numbers.

It is impossible to know the real rate of infection inside Cook County Jail because testing is so limited and many people with COVID-19 do not show any symptoms. We have long suspected that significantly more people in CCJ have COVID-19 and simply have not been tested. The only way to keep incarcerated people safe during this pandemic is to release them. Leaving thousands of people in the cramped, unsanitary confines of Cook County Jail will only lead to more deaths that could have been prevented.

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