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Community Groups, Faith Leaders Call For Mass Release of Detainees at Cook County Jail After Officer Tests Positive for COVID-19

Community groups and faith leaders in Chicago are calling for more people to be released from Cook County Jail after a corrections officer tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.

Faith leaders hold a prayer service while practicing social distancing outside Cook County Jail to demand the release of detainees after a corrections officer tested positive for COVID-19. Photo provided by the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

A small group of faith leaders gathered outside Cook County Jail Monday morning to pray for the release of detainees to prevent a mass outbreak of the virus inside. On Sunday, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced a corrections officer who had recently worked in the Residential Treatment Unit and Cermak Hospital was in isolation at home.

The Sheriff’s Office said it used video to identify anyone that may have come into close contact with the officer, and a small number of staff were advised to stay at home after consulting the Department of Public Health, and that none were symptomatic. The areas where the officer “worked were promptly re-cleaned and disinfected,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement, and “comprehensive education to staff on how to reduce chances of exposure and infection” is being provided.

Detainees inside Cook County Jail – most who have not been convicted of any crime and are awaiting trial or simply do not have the money to bond out – cannot isolate or quarantine effectively, say activists.

“Unless thousands of people are released, the inevitable, exponential rise of COVID-19 infections in the jail will bring down the entire county’s health system. Decarceration is required for social distancing, said Sharlyn Grace, Executive Director of Chicago Community Bond Fund, in a press release. “It is impossible to flatten the curve while maintaining mass criminalization and mass incarceration. Cook County officials will have blood on their hands for dragging their feet over the last two weeks or more, when this inevitability came to light.”

On March 13th, dozens of community groups including the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, Uptown People’s Law Center, Indivisible Chicago, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights​, and Black Lives Matter Chicago signed on to a letter demanding detainees be released en masse.

“The only acceptable response to the threat of COVID-19 is decarceration,” the letter reads in part. “Today there are more than 5,500 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail (CCJ). Almost all of them are still awaiting trial and thus presumed innocent under the law. Their ongoing incarceration is an unacceptable risk to every incarcerated individual as well as public health. Jails have extremely high turnover rates. Many people are released and admitted every day, and thousands of employees travel in and out of Cook County Jail each week. It is not a matter of if coronavirus and COVID-19 infect CCJ but when. As few people as possible should be exposed to this dangerous inevitability.”

Outside the jail on Monday, faith leaders filmed video messages that were tweeted out by the Chicago Community Bond Fund’s Twitter account.

“The 5,000 people held at Cook County Jail are here pretrial,” said Julie Webb of the Illinois Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism. “They are presumed innocent, and yet they are not allowed to have the most basic protection of being able to make themselves safe.”

Last week the Sheriff’s Office said it’s placed a “high priority” on reducing the numbers of nonviolent, low-level offenders.

“The Sheriff’s Office, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and the Cook County Office of the Public Defender have identified potential populations for consideration of release,” the department said in a statement to WTTW. “We will continue to work with our partners in those offices and the Office of the Chief Judge to expedite bond review hearings in order to secure the release of these populations as quickly as possible.”

On Monday Cook County Circuit Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr. ordered an expedited bond hearing process Public Defender Amy Campanelli filed an emergency motion on Friday arguing for an en masse release of detainees. According to the Sun-Times, judges will reviews lists of defendants who are determined not to pose a threat to public safety, and full hearings for cases where prosecutors object.

The Chicago Bond Fund however, argues that the process doesn’t go nearly far enough, and has organized a call in campaign to the Sheriff’s office and Chief Judge to demand more.

“This process is inadequate, too slow and puts thousands of lives at risk,” the group said in a tweet.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said her office has “been working around the clock” with the Cook County Sheriff and Public Defender to ensure individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety are released.

“In the interest of both public health and safety during the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO) has been working around the clock with the Cook County Sheriff and Public Defender to ensure any individuals who are not a threat to public safety are released from Cook County Jail,” Foxx said in a statement emailed to press. “This weekend alone, prosecutors reviewed more than 1,200 cases. We will continue this process and agree to appropriate releases for the duration of this pandemic, to limit the number of people in our jail and reduce the number of people needlessly coming to court while recognizing there are both public health and safety risks that some detainees may pose. The only way to carry this out responsibly is to address these risks on an individual, case-by-case basis and per the Court’s order this morning, we will do so with increased capacity and continued urgency.”

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