Federal judge denies mass release at Cook County Jail, named ‘top U.S. hot spot’ for COVID-19

New safety measures have been ordered while advocates insist that medical vulnerabilities are being ignored and many remain locked up only because they can’t afford bail.

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Despite the concerted efforts of the Cook County state’s attorney, sheriff and public defender to limit the spread of coronavirus inside the Cook County Jail, it is now “ the nation’s largest-known source” of infections, according to an analysis by the New York Times.

The situation has developed rapidly. In mid-March, when the sheriff’s office announced coordinated efforts to reduce the jail’s population in response to the virus, there were no known cases. As of 5 p.m. Thursday, the jail had 276 confirmed cases among detainees and 172 among staffers, according to the Cook County sheriff’s website. 

Advocates, who have sued to hasten the release of detainees they argue are the most vulnerable, fear many more will be infected.  

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly denied a bid to immediately release or transfer detainees, but ordered Sheriff Tom Dart to institute new safety measures including prompt testing for detainees showing symptoms, enforcing social distancing measures when taking in new inmates, and providing adequate amounts of soap for inmates. The sheriff must also “provide face masks to all detainees who are quarantined,”  according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I’m confident we’re going to get through this,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told the New York Times Wednesday, “but I could really use some more definition about how long the virus can last in an environment like this.”

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At least 1,324 coronavirus cases and 32 deaths have been linked to prisons and jails in the U.S., but that’s likely an undercount because some state and local agencies haven’t released data, according to The New York Times’ analysis. Last week, state officials called in the Illinois National Guard to address an outbreak at Stateville Correctional Center

The jail had its first death Sunday. Fifty-nine-year-old Jeffery Pendleton was pronounced dead at Stroger Hospital after being hospitalized about a week earlier. Pendleton was facing armed violence, drug and gun charges and had recently been denied a motion to reduce his bond, according to the Chicago Sun-Times

“It was horrible, but I wasn’t surprised … We’ve had clients die in jail, but not because of this. Not because of a pandemic,” said Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli. “It’s more than a tragedy because they never got their day in court.” 

Campanelli officially threw her support for a mass release by filing a petition for the immediate release for several categories of detainees on March 13. In response to the motion, Cook County Circuit Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr. ordered four days of expedited bond hearings to hear the maximum number of cases as quickly as possible, according to  WTTW. 

“We were all trying to work together at the beginning, but it was slow. And, of course, the state’s attorney was only agreeing to a few. So I filed the petition to get more people released and it worked. We absolutely got many more people and we still are,” Campanelli said. “I needed the judge to understand that this is not your everyday second look bond motion. This is not that case. These are ‘get everybody out that we can’ [cases] because they’re going to die or get very sick if they stay in the jail.”

That order stipulated seven categories of detainees, who were eligible for expedited bond hearings, including those charged with nonviolent offenses, pregnant women, detainees who can’t afford bond, those in jail because they don’t have a place to stay and those at risk “either because of their age or because of underlying health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, or hypertension, among others.”

Those hearings lasted four days and led to the release of about 700 detainees. Pendleton was amongst the detainees on Campanelli’s list who were denied the motion for a reduced bond. He likely won’t be the last death, putting more pressure on her office to get those who should be released out, she said.

“I know a lot of my lawyers will be bringing cases back,” Campanelli said. “Not only are our clients going to the hospital, but now they’re dying.”

In total, she estimates her office has helped between 1,100 and 1,200 detainees get their bond lowered and released in recent weeks. While the sheriff’s office’s announcement about cooperation between the three county offices came in mid-March, they had actually been working in conjunction weeks before, sometimes unsuccessfully.

“We needed the judges to step up and make sure that people were getting released because it wasn’t going well with the state’s attorney. I’m not saying they didn’t agree to some people, but it was not a lot,” Campinelli said.

“A pretrial death motion” 

According to the Chicago Community Bond Fund, denying Pendleton’s bond was a “pretrial death motion.” 

“Mr. Pendleton’s death is a tragedy that could have easily been avoided and one that will unfortunately be repeated if county officials do not act quickly. The refusal of elected officials to prioritize safety and health over mass incarceration has ensured that many more people will become infected while incarcerated and suffer from serious illness and death,” Sharlyn Grace, Executive Director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a party to the lawsuit, said in a statement.

The group has been working in conjunction with Loevy and Loevy, Civil Rights Corps and the MacArthur Justice Center in their lawsuit against the sheriff’s office. 

Following Tuesday’s hearing, Sarah Grady, an attorney at Loevy & Loevy, said that entire divisions of the jail are considered in quarantine and medically vulnerable people who are not yet sick are still being held in those divisions.

“While the sheriff’s office claims it has reduced the number of people in certain divisions, the fact remains that there are too many people in too close of quarters for social distancing to be possible or effective,” Grady said in the press release.

Since March 1, the jail’s population has dropped from 5,604 to 4,463, according to the Injustice Watch Tracker.

According to the most current data from the jail, the population is 74% black. A disproportionate number of black people are infected and dying from COVID-19 across not only Cook County, but the state of Illinois. 

While the prison population has gone down, activists fear that medical conditions are not being prioritized, which could lead to more deaths.

While the public defender’s office laid out some criteria about the detainees eligible for expedited bond hearings, which included some medical conditions, the state’s attorney’s office said it hasn’t created and doesn’t maintain a medical criteria list.

“In determining whether to recommend release to a judge, we reviewed each case on a case-by-case basis taking into account all of the facts and circumstances known to us regarding each individual defendant,” the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said in a statement Tuesday.  “The court then made the final decision regarding the person’s custodial status.” 

Demonstrators display signs in support of freeing detainees from Cook County Jail where an outbreak of COVID-19 is escalating as they drive in a “decarceration caravan” protest on April 7, 2020. (Video by Max Herman)

In the last week, the Community Bond Fund has talked to over 100 families of people incarcerated at the jail who are suffering from serious medical conditions, putting them at high-risk based on suggestions by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention including cancer, autoimmune deficiencies, asthma and diabetes.

“A majority of those people that we spoke to, if they simply had more money would be safe at home with their families right now,” said Matthew McLoughlin, director of programs for the fund. But, “because of their financial circumstances, their lives are at risk. And they’re currently being incarcerated in what many are calling the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.” 

The fund released its initial demands, which called for mass release of some detainees, expanding the rights of people on electronic monitoring and more access to basic hygiene items, on March 13. The bond review process at that time led to between 80 and 100 people being released, he said, which “just screams that the county was not taking the crisis at hand seriously enough.”

The group later supported the public defender’s office’s petition, which led to the expedited hearings and the release of many more, but didn’t do enough to protect the thousands still housed there, he said.

“All of the rhetoric from county stakeholders around the expedited bond review process that was set up was around prioritizing people as ‘nonviolent,’” McLoughlin said. “But the focus on charge, again, ignores medical conditions. It also ignores the fact that when a judge has set that monetary bond, that person has already been cleared for release. We can’t pound that drum hard enough, but there are still some thousand people if not more incarcerated in Cook County Jail that are only there because they’re poor.”