Cook County Jail Sees Tenth Death from COVID-19
On Sunday, January 17th, Jose Villa died after contracting COVID-19 in Cook County Jail. Mr. Villa, who was 84 years old, tried to have his bail reduced in April 2020, as the jail became one of the nation’s first virus hot-spots. Judges Mary Brosnahan and Timothy Joyce both denied him a bond reduction. He spent the next several months fearing for his life in Cook County Jail before he was admitted to Stroger Hospital. Mr. Villa is the tenth person to die of COVID-19 while in the custody of Cook County Jail.
The news of Mr. Villa’s death comes amidst a spate of reporting showing that COVID-19 is still spreading through prisons and jails at an alarming rate nationwide. Mr. Villa was taken to Stroger Hospital at the end of November, as people inside the jail began experiencing a second surge in infections that would ultimately surpass the rates from the virus’ peak in the spring. Though COVID rates have improved slightly, the Sheriff’s handling of the virus remains woefully inadequate. As of January 26, 184 people in the custody of Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Lives continue to be threatened by COVID-19 when these conditions are preventable.
The number of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail also remains at an alarmingly high 5,234, roughly the same as it was pre-pandemic. The Sheriff’s Office, the State’s Attorney’s Office, and the Chief Judge’s Office have demonstrated their ability to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the jail, as they did last May in response to the pandemic. Infection and death rates have only worsened since then, so there is no excuse for their failure to act with urgency now.
Sheriff Dart must resume social distancing within the jail and ensure that guards wear their masks at all times. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Chief Judge Tim Evans must work with Public Defender Amy Campanelli to resume an expedited review of bonds for people currently in the jail. They must exercise their power to reduce the number of people exposed to COVID-19 before more lives are lost.
Despite the pandemic, Cook County Judges continue to set unaffordable money bonds that put people’s lives at risk solely because they lack access to wealth. In September, the Coalition to End Money Bond released a report on the Cook County criminal court’s response to COVID-19. The Coalition found that of the 2,366 people who received a bond review between March 23 and April 22, 2020, 750 people had their motions for release denied and nearly half of the more than 5,000 people incarcerated in the jail last spring at the height of the pandemic never had their detention reconsidered. Coalition court watchers also observed 868 bond hearings over a two week period between May 18th and June 6th, and more than 330 of these individuals received money bonds. The majority of those money bonds were unaffordable and likely resulted in pretrial jailing.
As we mourn the death of Mr. Villa, we reaffirm our commitment to fighting for the freedom of everyone incarcerated in Cook County Jail. Cook County’s elected officials have a responsibility to take bold action NOW, before more lives are inevitably lost. No one should have to suffer or lose their life due to the cruelty and neglect of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
Take Action: Tell the Cook County State’s Attorney and Chief Judge to do the right thing and reduce the number of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. Demand that Sheriff Dart reinstate the social distancing practices originally ordered by the federal court.
Call-in & Email Scripts
State’s Attorney’s Office
Phone: (312) 603-1880
“Hi, my name is ____ and I live in ____. I’m calling to demand that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office take steps to dramatically lower the number of people in jail in response to COVID-19. This means declining to prosecute most cases, not filing new violations of bond or probation conditions, and instructing line prosecutors to support release of people currently detained pretrial in Cook County Jail in bond hearings.”
Phone: (312) 603-6444
“Hi, my name is____ and I live in ____. I’m calling to demand that the Cook County Sheriff’s Office take steps to dramatically lower the number of people in jail in response to COVID-19 and ensure that anyone in his custody is able to practice social distancing.”
Office of the Chief Judge
Phone: (312) 603-6000
“Hi, my name is ____ and I live in ____. I’m calling to demand that the Cook County Chief Judge take steps to dramatically lower the number of people in jail in response to COVID-19. This means facilitating bond review hearings for people currently in jail and instructing judges not to admit new people to the jail.”