New Court Filings Reveal That Conditions in Cook County Jail Remain Dire

 In General

More than 15 declarations filed in federal court on behalf of people incarcerated in the jail describe unsanitary conditions, a lack of hygiene products, and difficulty social distancing. 

One day after Sheriff Tom Dart claimed that there was no need for a two-week-old preliminary injunction ensuring sanitation, testing, social distancing, and the distribution of personal protective equipment at Cook County Jail, attorneys representing people incarcerated in the jail have filed declarations revealing that the Sheriff’s Office is still failing to protect the health of the people in his custody. Because of their deep-seated concerns with the Sheriff’s handling of COVID-19, last week Plaintiffs filed a request for limited discovery into the Sheriff’s compliance with the injunction. Instead of complying, the Sheriff has opposed Plaintiffs’ at every turn, including declaring his plan to appeal the injunction yesterday. Plaintiffs requested leave from the court to file a reply on May 12. Attached to that reply were even more detainee declarations decrying the conditions in the jail. Those documents make clear that Plaintiffs are entitled to evidence from the Sheriff about what he is doing to comply with the injunction.

“Since the pandemic began, volunteers with Chicago Community Bond Fund have talked to hundreds of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail about the conditions inside. While this lawsuit has led to some improvements inside the jail, the statements filed on behalf of people incarcerated in the jail today make clear that the Sheriff’s Office is still failing to protect the health of people incarcerated in his jail as required by the court. If the Sheriff were to be left to his own devices without court oversight, as he wishes, it is clear that even more lives will be unnecessarily lost,” said Sharlyn Grace, Executive Director of Chicago Community Bond Fund. 

The declarations filed demonstrate clear patterns inside Cook County Jail:

  • People are not being tested after coming into contact with other individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. In some cases, people who are being tested are not quarantined while awaiting their results. 
  • Protective gloves are unavailable to people incarcerated in the jail and masks are inconsistently distributed.
  • Social distancing remains impossible at dining tables, in showers, in day rooms, while using the phone, and in dormitory settings where people continue to sleep less than three feet apart from each other. Nelson Pacheo, who is incarcerated in Division 2 with 89 other people, said that social distancing was “not remotely possible.”
  • Commonly used surfaces, such as tables, phones, microwaves, and television remotes are rarely cleaned. 
  • Cleaning supplies are inadequate and not readily available. Darrion Hawkins described waiting five days to be given a rag to clean with.
  • Two small bars of soap are distributed once every one to two weeks. Detainees are forced to use these small bars for hand washing, showering, cleaning their cells, and in some cases, cleaning their clothes. One person mentioned not having received a change of clothes in more than a week.
  • Guards are regularly not wearing protective gear, including while distributing masks, meals, and commissary items to detainees. 
  • Detainees have repeatedly filed grievance slips that have not been responded to. In many cases, guards refused to even accept grievances.

Dominik Baster is currently hospitalized in Division 8 due to cirrhosis of the liver and high blood pressure. He is only in the jail because he cannot afford to pay a $5,000 bond. He is among the more than 700 people currently incarcerated in Cook County Jail because they cannot pay a bond of $10,000 or less. Mr. Baster has not been able to see a doctor for two months despite his severe condition. He is being housed with 39 other people whose beds are less than four feet apart from each other. Multiple people in Mr. Baster’s dorm have died from COVID-19, including William Sobczyk, who passed away last week. Prior to Mr.Sobcyzk’s death, Mr. Baster watched him be denied medical attention multiple times even while he was repeatedly vomiting and falling out of his bed.

On April 29th, Renaldo Almond’s bond was paid, allowing him to be released onto Sheriff’s electronic monitoring. After he changed into his street clothes to be discharged, Mr. Almond was informed that he was going back to Division 2 because the Sheriff’s Office had run out of electronic monitoring equipment. Today, Mr. Almond’s life remains at risk. He is still incarcerated in Division 2 along with approximately 100 other people. In the dorm in Division 2, the beds are a mere two feet apart and three showers and five toilets are shared between 100 people. Mr. Almond reports having gone a week and a half without receiving soap. The deck is a “revolving door,” with people being taken back and forth from Cermak Health Services.

Antonio White has a compromised immune system caused by an HIV infection. He has not been able to receive medication nor has he been able to have his blood tested to monitor his condition because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. White also suffers from asthma. He is among many medically vulnerable people being incarcerated in these dangerous conditions. Mr. White described not having been given soap or access to hand sanitizer and only occasionally receiving PPE. Multiple people have been removed from his dorm due to COVID-19 and yet Mr. White has not been tested, even after multiple requests. He remains incarcerated in Cook County Jail only because he can’t afford to pay a money bond. 

“The declarations that have been filed in this lawsuit about the conditions inside the Cook County jail should alarm every person of conscience. We will continue to press forward in court and in every other forum available to us to protect the lives of those who remain inside the health hazard that is the Cook County Jail,” said Alec Karakatsanis, Founder and Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps.

“In the Sheriff’s most recent filing, he asserted that this lawsuit was ‘stoking further anxiety, frustration, and unrest in the jail, which has manifested in detainee misconduct.’ This is a shocking claim. It is not the litigation but the life-threatening virus that keeps incarcerated people on edge and in fear for their lives. Further court oversight is required to protect the people incarcerated in Cook County Jail,” said Alexa Van Brunt, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center Clinic at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

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