Federal Court Orders Social Distancing at Cook County Jail and Continued Protections for Incarcerated People During COVID-19 Pandemic

 In General

Read the ruling and declarations filed on behalf of incarcerated people.

CHICAGO – A federal judge today ordered Sheriff Thomas Dart to implement social distancing measures for people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. With few exceptions, Judge Matthew Kennelly’s order dictates that people incarcerated in the jail can no longer be housed in the same cell with another person and that most dormitory housing must be stopped. The court also extended its earlier orders requiring the Sheriff to ensure sanitation, testing, social distancing at intake, and the distribution of personal protective equipment.

“Today’s ruling made clear that Sheriff Dart was failing detainees during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Locke Bowman of MacArthur Justice Center. “The ruling put into place measures Dart has previously refused to implement, including expanding mandatory testing and barring dangerous congregate-style dormitory housing and double cells. While the Sheriff has maintained this lawsuit was a waste of time, today’s ruling proves that a judicial injunction was absolutely necessary to ensure the protection of detainees’ health.”

As the Court recognized in its Order, Cook County Jail continues to be one of the nation’s largest single-site jails and has been identified as one of the single biggest Coronavirus hotspot in the United States. In the last several weeks, six people have died in Cook County Jail from COVID-19. In the past four weeks, 461 people incarcerated in the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. If Sheriff’s staff are included, 824 people associated with Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

Earlier this month, Chicago Community Bond Fund, civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, and the MacArthur Justice Center filed an emergency class-action lawsuit against the Cook County Sheriff’s Office seeking the immediate release of medically vulnerable people from Cook County Jail in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. 

The outbreak is far from under control. “The Sheriff has only tested 664 people – approximately 15% of the current jail population. That means there is significant under testing at the Jail, and a very high positive rate.  Today’s Court Order requires the Sheriff to carry out a policy of prompt coronavirus testing of all detainees who exhibit COVID symptoms AND people who have been exposed to the virus, where medically appropriate,” said Alexa Van Brunt of the MacArthur Justice Center. “The Court ordered the Sheriff to obtain sufficient testing materials – so testing decisions are made based on people’s health, not the availability of testing materials.”

“We intend to continue to closely monitor the Sheriff’s compliance with the Court’s orders and to fight for the constitutional rights of the people detained in the jail,” said Sarah Grady, an attorney at Loevy & Loevy. “The Court’s order does not exclude the possibility of a release order in the future, and we expect that the outbreak will demonstrate the necessity of an order for release.”

“We have spoken to more than 500 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail since the pandemic began, and they have told us that conditions continue to place people’s health in danger. The Court Order cited the declarations submitted on behalf of incarcerated people who say social distancing is impossible in the Jail and that there are ongoing and serious sanitation problems. The narrative being put forward by Sheriff Dart is not based in reality and continues to put people at risk of further harm. The only way to prevent more deaths is through decarceration. We continue to demand mass release of people from Cook County Jail in the name of public health,” said Sharlyn Grace, Executive Director of Chicago Community Bond Fund.

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