CHICAGO (CBS) — The Cook County Sheriff’s office on Tuesday announced that it is appealing a court order mandating specific social distancing requirements at the Cook County Jail.
The Sheriff’s office said it is meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to prevent coronavirus infections as it is – as well as the terms of the court order. The office said the continued litigation has “drained the energy and expertise of the Sheriff’s Office’s front line staff.”
The Sheriff’s office said in a news release that it had demonstrated to a federal judge that “immense” efforts have already been made at the jail to fight COVID-19 and protect inmates in “good faith,” but those bringing the litigation ignore those findings and try to make headlines by demanding the release of inmates.
“This is a tremendous waste of resources that are critically needed by our staff to continue the successes we have seen in combatting this unprecedented pandemic,” the Sheriff’s office said.
The Sheriff’s office said it now has to defend its own “extraordinary measures,” taxpayer funds, and public safety, and the court order on top of it.
“Plaintiffs’ attorneys want to micro-manage the operations of the jail by proxy, using their singular focus of how a jail should be operated –without regard for the incredible complexity of keeping the staff and detainees safe during unprecedented fear and uncertainty,” the Sheriff’s office said. “With every honest and transparent report we file, reflecting the multi-faceted issues faced by our frontline staff, Plaintiffs’ counsel file new demands with ever-changing positions that seize on and spread misinformation and, frankly, fear.”
The Sheriff’s office asked the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to put a stop to the plaintiffs’ “interference with the operation of our facility consistent with CDC guidance.”
Attorneys representing inmates inside the 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. Last 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.
Kennelly subsequently issued another 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 was also ordered to 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 ordered jail officials 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.