Rally for Release of People Incarcerated in Cook County Jail During the COVID-19 Pandemic on Nickolas Lee’s 43rd Birthday

 In General

Today, community members are marking what would have been Nickolas Lee’s 43th birthday with a rally outside of Cook County Jail to call for the mass release of people incarcerated during the pandemic and improved conditions for those who remain inside. Mr. Lee passed away on April 12, 2020 after contracting COVID-19 in Cook County Jail. As of today, more than 500 people incarcerated in the jail have contracted the deadly virus and the lives of six people incarcerated in the jail have been lost. Cook County Jail is one of the nation’s largest single-site jails and has become one of the single biggest Coronavirus hotspots in the United States. 

“My husband should be here today. His death could have been prevented, but the Cook County Sheriff’s Office failed to do the bare minimum to keep people inside its jail safe during this pandemic. We cannot allow another life to be lost, regardless of the charge someone is facing. On what should have been my husband’s 43th birthday, I will be outside Cook County Jail to make sure no other family has to experience a loss like mine,” said Cassandra Greer-Lee, widow of Nickolas Lee.

On April 3, 2020, law firms Loevy & Loevy, MacArthur Justice Center, and Civil Rights Corps worked with Chicago Community Bond Fund to file a class action lawsuit challenging conditions inside the jail. On April 27, 2020, federal judge Matthew Kennelly ordered Sheriff Thomas Dart to implement social distancing measures for people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. With few exceptions, the 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 to incarcerated people.

“In the last several weeks, our organization has spoken to more than 500 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. We have repeatedly heard that the conditions inside the jail continue to pose a grave risk to people’s health and safety. Social distancing–the primary thing we have all been instructed to do to keep safe during this pandemic–is impossible inside the jail. County officials have dragged their feet, and as a consequence, lives are being lost. We must release more people to prevent further loss of life among people incarcerated in the jail,” said Sharlyn Grace, Executive Director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

More than 100 advocacy, community, legal organizations and unions have been calling for a mass release of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail to protect public health since mid-March. Last month, more than 200 cars circled Cook County Jail to call for release of people incarcerated there, and faith leaders also held a vigil outside the jail.  Hundreds of community members have called into the offices of the Cook County Sheriff, State’s Attorney, and Chief Judge demanding the release of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. In response, more than 1,400 people have been released from Cook County Jail so far. Despite this progress, more people must be released to slow the spread of COVID-19 inside the jail and save lives.

“Cook County Jail in conjunction with the coronavirus can easily equal a corpse,” said Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. of the Black Panther Party.

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