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CHICAGO — There’s growing concern that jails are petri-dishes where the new coronavirus can spread fast and drain health care resources and equipment needed elsewhere.

Concerns grow at Cook County Jail as COVID-19 spreads

CHICAGO — There’s growing concern that jails are petri-dishes where the new coronavirus can spread fast and drain health care resources and equipment needed elsewhere.

Since the first Cook County Jail inmate tested positive last Sunday, authorities have reduced the jail’s population by about 10% but there are still roughly 5,000 inmates housed and the sheriff’s critics say it’s too little, too late.

As of Monday night, 134 inmates at the Cook County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

Criminal justice reform activist Eric Russell said the situation is bound to get worse as the virus spreads inside the confines and close quarters of the jail.

“We have tiers. We have people that are sharing cells. There is no way to social distance yourself in the Cook County Jail,” he said.

It’s been an issue for inmates in prisons all over Illinois.WGN News spoke on the phone with an inmate at downstate Vandalia Correctional Center who said prisoners have no ability to distance themselves from other people.

Inmate Barri Gay said he’s concerned about the lack of hand sanitizer and the conditions in the jail kitchen.

“That containment can be put into our food or on our trays. We’re getting plastic and styrofoam, this virus lives on plastic and styrofoam,” he said.

Across the state prison system, at least 15 staff and 11 inmates have tested positive, with more than 80 people awaiting results. On Monday, authorities announced that one inmate died at Stateville.

The situation is raising questions for the criminal justice system about who should be locked behind bars during a pandemic.

Some have called on Cook County’s chief judge to suspend youth detention during the public health crisis.

Gov. JB Pritzker signed an executive order that will stop new inmates from being admitted to state prisons during the pandemic — with only a few exceptions.

At the Cook County Jail, where a number of employees are wearing masks to work, some inmates have been freed, but Russell said it’s not happening fast enough to save lives and resources.

“If you have been classified as a non-violent offender, you need to be fast-tracked and released,” Russell said.

Sheriff Tom Dart does not have the power to do that — even if he wanted to. Inmates can only be freed by a judge’s order, if bond is paid, processes that the sheriff does not control.

His office says health care workers from Cermak Health Services are closely monitoring detainees and will test anyone showing symptoms. However, Gay said that’s not what he has seen.

“I haven’t seen one person taken and say, ‘We fittin’ to test you for coronavirus.’ They haven’t walked around and actively said, ‘We’re coronavirus testing.’ But if somebody has it on this tier, then we all have it because we’re sleeping one foot apart from each other,” he said.”

Dart was not available for an interview Monday, but his spokesman said the sheriff does not have the power to do free inmates. Inmates can only be freed by a judge’s order, or by payment of bond — a processes controlled by the court, not the sheriff.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office released the following statement:

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office has worked tirelessly for months to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the Department of Corrections. Prior to any confirmed cases at the DOC, the Sheriff implemented aggressive preventative measures, including screening every incoming detainee for signs of the virus, suspending social visits, and creating special receiving tiers where new detainees are held for their first week in custody in order to monitor them for the virus before moving them to general population.

Last week, Sheriff Dart re-opened the barracks at the former DOC boot camp near the main jail campus, which now has 500 beds to isolate inmates positive for COVID-19 from the rest of the population. Jail staff are working to place as many detainees as possible in single cells to reduce the chance of person-to-person transmission. We are working in concert with Cermak Health Services to limit the spread of the virus among detainees and staff.

The Sheriff has asked that inmates who show possible signs of the virus be tested as quickly as possible. Currently, testing individuals who are asymptomatic is not recommended by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, but detainees and staff are provided hand sanitizer and other hygiene products and are educated on how to protect themselves from the virus.

The current jail population is at 4,800, the lowest level since records have been kept, and we continue to support the work of our partners at the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Office of the Cook County Public Defender and Office of the Chief Judge to secure the release of detainees held on non-violent, low level offenses.