Line of jail cells, representing cook county jail.

Cook County Jail: A “Petri Dish” For Coronavirus

Chicago’s Cook County Jail is the largest single-site jail in the United States. And as coronavirus has swept the country, it was only a matter of time before detention centers felt the brunt of the epidemic. Sheriff Tom Dart says that time has come. The jail has reported 276 confirmed coronavirus cases among the inmates as of April 9th, and approximately 115 staff members have tested positive as well. However, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s office, there’s a large number of inmates who still have not been tested. 

Dart, along with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, have pointed to several factors that make the county jail a petri dish for the deadly virus:

  • Asymptomatic patients (meaning they show no symptoms)
  • Constant staff movement in and out of the jail
  • Close quarters and no social distancing

Preckwinkle calls jails the government equivalent of nursing homes and cruise ships. The distressing numbers have forced the county to take measures to reduce the number of inmates. They include releasing defendants who are nonviolent, elderly, frail, pregnant, or who have bails of less than a thousand dollars. Nonviolent defendants, in particular, may be let go; of the 5,000 inmates, approximately 1,000 are considered safe enough to release.

For those who are to remain in jail, the county has adopted a more drastic, and unique, approach: setting up a quarantine camp. The jail has repurposed an old mental health facility to keep coronavirus infected and potentially infected detainees separate from the general population. Detainees who arrive at the jail are examined by medical professionals who then assign them to a specific building. Those who are positive but don’t require hospitalization stay in one part of the jail, while those awaiting test results stay in another.

For Dart, this temporary solution is the best that can be done in light of the ongoing pandemic. “There isn’t even close to a playbook, there’s nothing,” Dart commented. He credits the jail staff with getting the quarantine camp up in running in only three days. But he acknowledges the challenge of keeping the non-infected inmates healthy.

As the epidemic progresses, Cook County has been singled out by the White House coronavirus task force as the next potential hot spot. In just one week, the state of Illinois went from a few hundred confirmed cases to over 3,000, with more than 34 deaths. Health officials predict that the jump in the number of cases means grim news for the next few weeks.

“That trajectory is going upwards and I think there will be an increase in the number of deaths,” said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, chief medical examiner at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. As a sobering indication of how bad things are, the Medical Examiner’s Office is working to acquire additional refrigerated warehouse space to store bodies.

Arunkumar says her office is prepared for a worst-case scenario that could put the number of coronavirus patients here on a scale rivaling New York City. These physicians could be the last people who patients ever see, Arunkumar says, so they want to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect

Contact Hale & Monico Today

Cook County Jail has an obligation to keep inmates safe.  If you feel that Cook County Jail is not keeping you or a loved one safe, contact a Hale & Monico civil rights attorney today.