Covid-19 Pandemic in the Cook County Jail

Pandemic in the Cook County Jail

By Diana Berek

CHICAGO, IL — On March 13, 2020, in response to growing community fears that COVID-19 would turn jails and prisons into Petri dishes, Chief Judge Timothy Evans enacted Emergency Measures closing most court functions and requiring the courts to conduct reviews of prior bail decisions if they are initiated by their attorneys. One attorney told me that he’s never seen anything like the disruption, confusion and clerical gridlock that ensued. “The courts closed for one day during the 2019 polar vortex and it took months to get it straightened out. This month long closure is going to be even worse —it will be a huge mess for a very long time.”

The close conditions of confinement in prisons makes social distancing extremely difficult, if not impossible. Yet, Sheriff Tom Dart’s office has continued to pack detainees into overcrowded units and Judge Evans has continued to put people in jail pre-trial during the coronavirus crisis.

On March 18, the Sheriff’s Office posted an update to their visitation policy stating that since January 24, they would be screening incoming detainees for flu-like symptoms and suspending the social visits for detainees and limiting outside visitors to essential volunteers, clergy and attorneys. In this additional form of cutting detainees off from the people that are their only connection to the larger community, they are at risk, not only from the Coronavirus but also from the oversight and scrutiny that is so crucial to ensuring that their basic emotional, civil and human rights are being respected.

The Sheriff’s Office stated that “Cleaning regimens have increased throughout all areas of the jail, and detainees are being educated regarding preventative hygiene and are urged to report the presence of symptoms of the virus in themselves or others. All DOC employees receive daily reminders on preventative measures recommended by the CDC and other health agencies. All DOC staff have been instructed to notify their supervisors immediately if they experience flu-like symptoms at work, and to stay home and seek medical attention if they experience them while off-duty. Staff who show flu-like symptoms must be medically cleared prior to returning to work. The health and safety of staff, detainees, and the general public continue to be the primary concern of the Sheriff’s Office.”

But the reality seems to be entirely different than what the Sheriff’s Office states in that message. The phone calls of one young pre-trial detainee in to his mother were so alarming that she reached out to me asking that I try to bring to light what was really happening to her son and to other pre-trial detainee in CCJ.

Here is my interview with her. She wishes to remain anonymous out of concerns that her son might face reprisal for publicizing what is happening to him and the others while in detention. To protect her and her son’s identity, I shall call her Ms. NJ.

DB: When was your son remanded to the Cook County Jail?

NJ: He was sent there on March 12th. At first, he was in a very crowded unit. There was no way for the detainees to maintain any kind of safe distance between themselves. Some of the detainees were sick.

At some point, after the unit got too crowded, he was transferred. I don’t remember what day that was. By March 19, he said he was feeling dizzy and had blurry vision. He said that the staff who bring their meals and their commissary told him they don’t feel comfortable bringing anything to them, because there was a rumor that someone tested positive.

He said that they missed some meals because the staff didn’t bring them. They aren’t being allowed to file a grievance or fill out grievance papers over the insufficient food as well as other problems in the lack of sanitary conditions. They didn’t get medical attention or mental health evaluations and it became extremely tense ion that first week or so and there were two fights on March 20. H told me he is concerned that the unit is getting too crowded and tense and could quickly become unsafe for them all.

DB: After he was transferred what conditions did he find himself in?

NJ: The unit he was transferred to is under quarantine. And sometimes they do not even bring them the things that are supposed to be delivered to them, either because their unit is overlooked (not part of the regular routine), or because some staff doesn’t know about the unit (because it hasn’t been in use for a long time) or because they just won’t go to the unit out of fear of exposure to COVID-19. Every day, the detainees put in their requests for reading materials from the law library. Every day, some of the detainees request to speak to a social worker so they can request a stamped envelope, but their requests are b being ignored. For the first 2 weeks, the detainees did not get any clean replacement clothing, so he washed his socks and underwear by hand each night. The toilets are overflowing. The floors, showers and window casings are moldy. There is no fresh air or ventilation. The water looks brown and rusty.

DB: How is he doing?

NJ: Mentally, he is exasperated, anxious, and worried that he will become infected with Coronavirus. He feels like they are being treated and talked to worse than if they were unwanted dogs. He has a cough which he thinks is allergy related because he is allergic to mold and he says there is black moldy spots everywhere around the plumbing fixtures.

DB: Is he sick now?

NJ: He does have a mold allergy, he has a medically diagnosed anxiety condition and panic attacks that are a result of a concussion he suffered from a high school football injury. He has also bee diagnosed with PTSD as a result of losing a family member and several close friends to gun violence.

DB: Has he been tested for COVID-19?

NJ: He saw a nurse at intake. He attempted to make her aware of his medical conditions, but she dismissed him by saying that he should keep his “outside problems outside”. When he told there that he feels short of breath, she told him he can’t be really in distress because ‘he isn’t dead — they are all breathing the same air, so why doesn’t she feel short of breath?’ Since then, they have refused his requests for medical evaluation and grievance forms. No, he hasn’t been tested for COVID-19.

DB: Why do you think he or any of the detainees should be released?

NJ: I think they should all be released for their own safety. Whatever they are accused of, they have not been found guilty and they are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. They should be released so that their health and their lives are not endangered by the Coronavirus which is already harming detainees and staff in CCJ. They should all be released for the sake of public safety, too, and to prevent a mass incarceration death, they should be released.

DB: Thank you, Ms. NJ, for sharing your concerns. Thank you for bringing forward his voice and experiences.

As of April 3rd, a total of 210 detainees at Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19 and 14 have been hospitalized. Additionally, 60 staff have also tested positive. The first 2 cases were announced on March 23rd, only 11 days ago.

Our city, our nation, and indeed, the entire planet are in crisis. We demand that our political leaders keep all the people safe. Incarcerated people are among the most vulnerable during this pandemic. We must demand that our elected officials make sure that the basic human rights of these inmates are respected. It is in the interests of the entire community to prevent unprecedented contagion within the walls of CCJ: a contagion that will endanger not only the inmates, but the staff, and every person the staff come into contact with when they return to the community.

Update; Please call Governor Pritzker 312-814-2121; Sheriff Tom Dart 312-603-6444, Chief Judge Timothy Evans 312-603-6000,  State’s Attorney Kim Foxx 312-602-1880. Local advocates include the Illinois Justice Project –,, Uptown People’s Law Center. It has six class-action lawsuits filed against the Illinois Department of Corrections. These lawsuits will ultimately change the prison system in Illinois for the better. To learn more about a case, click on the name. See Chicago Community Bond Fund –

4/8/2020 UPDATE ON COVID-19 IN CCJ The mom has just had the kind of terrifying phone call with her son, that all mothers fear. Her son has said that another detainee has developed high fever and was medically transferred out, presumably to a hospital. That detainee whose fever was 105, was someone who had been in close contact with her son since he they were transferred to the unit. The unit is now getting their temperatures taken once a day in the mornings. Her son has been coughing, has had headaches and this morning his temperature was up to 99 (from 96 on previous days). He said the whole unit is now on 30 day quarantine. They are all feeling panicky, They are afraid that if they get COVId-19, the Sheriff and the jail officials won’t release them, or get them the care they need because even though they are pre-trial detainees, they are the ones still in jail and presumed to be “dangerous criminals”. He told her that he doesn’t want to die in jail and presumed to guilty of something he hasn’t had the chance to prove he is innocent of. he doesn’t want to be remembered that way. He is 21 years old. 

Here is a list of some numbers that you can call right away.
Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker: (312) 814-2121
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart: (312) 603-6444
Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans: (312) 603-6000
Illinois State’s Attorney Kim Foxx: (312) 602-1880


— Published on PTLN on 4-5-20 —

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