CHICAGO (CBS) — A federal judge is requiring additional social distancing efforts at the Cook County Jail, but has again denied a request to release hundreds of inmates due to the COVID-19 threat.
Attorneys representing inmates inside Cook County Jail have said Sheriff Tom Dart’s office hasn’t done enough to protect inmates from the novel coronavirus, and has made an ongoing request for the mass release of vulnerable detainees. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ordered the Sheriff’s Office to ensure sanitation, testing, social distancing at intake, and protective equipment for inmates; but so far, the judge has denied requests to release inmates en masse.
On Monday, Kennelly issued a new preliminary injunction requiring more sweeping social distancing measures at the jail — including mandatory COVID-19 testing of all inmates who exhibit symptoms of the disease, and of those exposed to others who have tested positive or shown symptoms; and suspension of the use of bullpens and multi-person cells during intake.
The Cook County Sheriff’s office also must provide enough soap and/or hand sanitizer to all inmates to allow them to frequently wash their hands; as well as sanitation supplies to regularly disinfect commonly touched surfaces such as two-person cells, bathrooms, and showers; and face masks for all inmates who are quarantined for any reason.
Kennelly also gave jail officials until Friday to implement new policies banning double-celling of inmates, except in limited circumstances, such as when detainees are being quarantined after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, or if they are on suicide watch. The judge also is requiring the jail to use dormitory-style housing, where inmates sleep in large rooms on cots, only if those areas are at less than 50% capacity, to allow detainees to stay at least six feet away from each other.
“Under ordinary circumstances, there is nothing constitutionally inappropriate about housing detained persons in groups and allowing them to come into contact with each other. Currently we are not living in ordinary circumstances—hence the preliminary injunction—but once matters return to something approaching normal, it may be appropriate to loosen the requirements of the injunction,” Kennelly wrote in his 87-page ruling.
With more than 4,100 people incarcerated at the facility, attorneys for the plaintiffs have said they believe it’s impossible for the jail to meet this standard, unless some of the inmates are released. However, Kennelly again denied their request to release hundreds of inmates.
The judge said inmates seeking to be released have not exhausted their options in state court, noting they can go to state court for emergency bond review hearings, and can also seek expedited appeals, so it would be premature for the federal courts to step in to order detainees released.
As of Sunday evening, 229 inmates at the jail were positive for COVID-19, including 17 who are being treated at hospitals, according to the sheriff’s website. Another 232 detainees who earlier tested positive are now recovering and no longer positive for the virus. Six inmates who have tested positive have died.
In addition, 158 correctional officers at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 35 sheriff’s employees also have tested positive.