Federal Appeals Court Rejects Sheriff Dart’s Claim that Jail Doesn’t Need COVID-19 Pandemic Oversight
In a landmark ruling today, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals largely sided with plaintiffs in the Mays vs. Dart lawsuit challenging the conditions inside Cook County Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first case in the country in which a federal appeals court has upheld an injunction related to the conditions inside jails or prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Court affirmed the preliminary injunction measures put in place by District Judge Matthew Kennelly, who found that an order requiring the distribution of soap, hand sanitizer, and masks, was necessary to protect the health of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail.
“Sheriff Dart’s mismanagement of this crisis cost seven incarcerated people their lives and sickened over 500 more. Yet for the last couple of months, Sheriff Dart has disgracefully taken victory laps in the national media. This ruling validates what we have known since day one: the Cook County Sheriff’s Office cannot be left to its own devices; federal court oversight is required to ensure that further lives will not be lost unnecessarily. Since April, CCBF volunteers have spoken to hundreds of people incarcerated in the jail, and their testimony shows that conditions inside Cook County Jail improved only after the federal court mandated changes,” said Sharlyn Grace, Executive Director of Chicago Community Bond Fund.
“My husband died of COVID-19 while incarcerated in Cook County Jail because Sheriff Dart failed to prepare for this pandemic. Had the measures put in place by the federal court been taken in early March, my husband might still be alive. Today’s decision will help ensure that more lives aren’t needlessly lost inside Cook County Jail,” said Cassandra Greer-Lee, widow of Nickolas Lee, the third person to die of COVID-19 while in the custody of Cook County Jail.
“Today, the Court of Appeals recognized the dire situation that faced individuals imprisoned at the Cook County Jail before the district court took action and affirmed the vast majority of those measures. As the case returns to the trial court, we will continue to fight for the people in the jail to ensure that they are not put in harm’s way by the Sheriff’s Office,” said Sarah Grady, the founder of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at Loevy & Loevy and one of the attorneys for the class.
“Going forward, what is important is how the Sheriff’s Office continues to treat people in its custody, especially given rising infection rates in the jail, in Chicago, and throughout Illinois,” said Alexa Van Brunt, class counsel with the MacArthur Justice Center. “We will be actively monitoring and expect that in addition to providing proper sanitation supplies, widespread access to testing, and face masks, the Sheriff will enforce strict social distancing in the jail’s housing units.”
Today’s ruling is the latest development in the Mays vs. Dart lawsuit, filed by Civil Rights Corps, Loevy & Loevy, and the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, challenging conditions inside Cook County Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, more than 500 people incarcerated in the jail have contracted the deadly virus, and the lives of seven incarcerated people have been lost. More than 400 Sheriff’s employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and three have died. Cook County Jail is one of the nation’s largest single-site jails and was identified by The New York Times on April 8, 2020 as the single biggest Coronavirus hotspot in the United States.