Federal Judge hears arguments in Emergency Class Action Suit to prevent coronavirus deaths at Cook County jail

Federal Judge hears arguments in Emergency Class Action Suit to prevent coronavirus deaths at Cook County jail
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Federal Judge hears arguments in Emergency Class Action Suit to prevent coronavirus deaths at Cook County jail

Attorneys urge the release of detainees from Cook County jail who are high risk for COVID-19

Read the complaint and declarations from medical experts and people currently incarcerated in Cook County Jail.

A consortium of civil rights attorneys made arguments before a federal judge in Chicago today to force the nation’s largest jail complex, Cook County Jail, to immediately release detainees at high risk to the Covid-19 virus and others held on cash bonds.

Attorneys with civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, and MacArthur Justice Center argued to Judge Kennelly that the crowded, unsanitary conditions inside Cook County Jail make it impossible for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department to maintain healthy and safe conditions for the people incarcerated there.

Cook County Jail entrance at 3015 S. California Blvd. Photo courtesy of Cook County Sheriff's Office

Cook County Jail entrance at 3015 S. California Blvd. Photo courtesy of Cook County Sheriff’s Office

In addition to requesting the release of medically vulnerable people in the Cook County Jail, the lawsuit asks that people remaining in the jail be housed in accordance with CDC guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

 “Today in court we heard from the Sheriff’s Office that there are entire divisions considered to be ‘in quarantine,’ but there are still medically vulnerable people who are not yet sick inside those divisions. And, 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,” said Sarah Grady, an attorney at Loevy & Loevy.

Today’s hearing comes one day after the Sheriff’s Office announced the death of Jeffery Pendleton, the first person to die of COVID-19 while in the custody of Cook County Jail. Mr. Pendleton was 59 years old and incarcerated because he could not pay $5,000 to secure his release while awaiting trial.

On March 26th, Mr. Pendleton’s public defender filed an emergency motion for bond review in an attempt to secure his release from the jail. That motion was denied—a decision that ultimately became a pretrial death sentence. At this time, more than 260 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

“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. We are hopeful Judge Kennelley will recognize the gravity of the crises at hand and act swiftly to protect the lives of those incarcerated in the health hazard that is Cook County Jail,” said Sharlyn Grace, Executive Director of Chicago Community Bond Fund.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart were asked to file additional briefs addressing some outstanding legal issues by midnight tonight

Late last week, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, and the MacArthur Justice Center filed an emergency class-action lawsuit against Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, asking for the immediate release of medically vulnerable people in the Cook County Jail in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

The lawsuit filing follows three weeks of campaigning after the release of an open letter to Cook County officials endorsed by more than 100 community, policy, and legal organizations demanding the mass release of people from Cook County Jail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Cook County Jail is being overrun by COVID-19. Currently, the infection rate inside the jail is nearly 40 times the overall rate in Cook County. And while the rest of us have been able to engage in social distancing to protect ourselves, both detainees and jail staff alike have alerted us that numerous people inside the jail, many with serious medical conditions, are housed in open areas where social distancing is impossible. If something isn’t done to reduce the number of people in Cook County Jail, there is every reason to believe that people will needlessly die,” said Stephen Weil of Loevy & Loevy.

The lawsuit also challenges the current conditions of the Cook County Jail, alleging that the jail is unable to provide access to basic hygiene to mitigate the spread of COVID-19–including means for frequent handwashing with soap and water and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

“The law is crystal clear on this point,” said Charlie Gerstein, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. “You simply may not jail people in conditions that expose them to an intolerable risk of illness and death, and that’s exactly what Dart is doing at this very moment. We’ve asked the federal court to immediately put a stop to this ongoing crisis.”

The first person in the Cook County Jail tested positive for COVID-19 just two weeks ago on March 23rd. Since then, an entire division of the jail has been quarantined. While at least 234 people jailed and 78 staff have tested positive as of April 5, doctors at the jail’s health center estimate that the actual rate of infection is three to four times that amount.

When COVID-19 spreads inside a jail, both people detained and staff are at risk. Every day, hundreds of jail employees working on three different shifts travel into and out of the jail. Each employee could potentially be carrying and transmitting COVID-19 not only within the jail, but also in their homes and neighborhoods. The rapid spread of infection within the jail also ensures many people become seriously ill at the same time, contributing to the strain on the healthcare system and threatening the well-being of all Cook County residents.

“Thousands of people are caged in Cook County Jail, many simply because they can’t afford to pay bond. The living conditions in Cook County Jail are not suitable for human beings; people are living like animals. There is no such thing as social distancing because people are squeezed together like sardines in a can. People’s lives are in jeopardy inside the jail. Our elected officials are not doing enough. If we don’t do something, people are going to die,” said Flonard Wrencher, an advocate with Chicago Community Bond Fund who was previously incarcerated in Cook County Jail.

In addition to requesting the release of medically vulnerable people in the Cook County Jail, the lawsuit asks that people remaining in the jail be housed in accordance with CDC guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“There are now 234 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among persons detained in the County Jail, and growing daily,” said Locke Bowman, Executive Director of the MacArthur Justice Center. “Cook County Jail has become a petri dish for COVID-19. We are all in this together—those who are free and those being detained. Allowing this outbreak to expand as it has, endangers lives of detainees and jail staff as well as family members, essential workers, first responders, and frontline medical caregivers and all of the rest of us.”

Ray Hanania

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