With health experts warning that coronavirus outbreaks in prisons and jails are only a matter of time, local advocates have called on Cook County to take immediate steps to reduce its jail population in order to protect detainees, staff, and the general public.
About 1,500 of Cook County Jail’s inmates now awaiting trial are being held solely because they can’t afford money bonds, and they should be released immediately, according to an open letter from the Chicago Community Bond Fund and two dozen other local groups. People given money bonds have been cleared for pretrial release and are in jail only because they can’t afford bail, and CCBF believes Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart could order them released, said Matthew McLoughlin, the group’s director of programs.
The open letter called for a moratorium on new money bonds and for avoiding as many new admissions to the jail as possible. It also called for lifting the ban on hand sanitizer for the jail population and lifting restrictions on people confined at home on electronic monitoring, for whom simple errands like grocery shopping are routinely denied.
Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans announced last week that most criminal and civil cases in the Cook County Circuit Court will be postponed for 30 days, though bail hearings, arraignments and preliminary hearings will continue.
“Cancellation of court dates should not delay anyone’s release from Cook County Jail,” the open letter argued. “Given that 70% of people released from Cook County Jail return directly to the community, any failure to resolve court cases at the same pace will increase the number of people in jail and thus the threat to their individual health and public health.”
McLoughlin said that with visitations now cut off, access to telephones and to video visitation should be increased. “People have a right to know what’s happening with their family and friends,” he said.
The combination of close confinement in unsanitary conditions along with constant traffic in and out of jail makes it particularly susceptible to an infectious outbreak, according to experts — and cases are already showing up in some facilities. Governor J.B. Pritzker “has recommended against gatherings of more than 250 people, and the [Centers for Disease Control] has recommended against gatherings of more than 50 people, and we’re wondering how this concentration of 5,500 people fits in with that,” said McLoughlin.
He said law enforcement agencies should cooperate in reducing jail admissions and cited efforts in cities around the country along those lines. Bexar County in Texas, which includes San Antonio, is reportedly suspending arrests for minor offenses in order to keep jail admissions down. In Mahoning County, Ohio, which includes Youngstown, the sheriff’s office is refusing all nonviolent misdemeanor arrests at the county jail and telling officers to issue summonses instead.
“This is an unprecedented situation and it calls for unprecedented action in response,” said McLoughlin. “But it seems like the response is coming too slowly at every level of government.”