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April 27, 2020

Federal judge orders more social distancing, but does not mandate more releases, for Cook County Jail in Chicago

As reported in this Chicago Tribune piece, a "federal judge on Monday issued a preliminary injunction mandating additional social distancing measures to battle the spread of coronavirus at the Cook County Jail, including banning double-inmate cells and group housing in most cases."  Here is more about this (limited) new ruling:

In an 87-page order, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly gave the sheriff’s office until Friday to implement new plans eliminating “bullpens” to house new inmates being processed into the jail, providing face masks to all detainees under quarantine, and regularly sanitizing “all frequently touched surfaces and objects.”

Double-inmate cells will be permitted only in certain situations — such as on tiers where inmates are quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19 or are on suicide or other medical watch, Kennelly ruled. The judge also wrote that dormitory-style tiers can only be used if they are at less than 50% capacity, so the 6-foot distancing rule can be better enforced.

The ruling came as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Loevy and Loevy law firm and the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University alleging Sheriff Tom Dart has failed to stop a “rapidly unfolding public health disaster” at the jail, which has been identified as one of the nations’ leading hot spots for coronavirus infections.

As of Sunday, six detainees have died after contracting COVID-19 at the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. Another 229 inmates currently have the virus, 17 of whom are hospitalized. Hundreds of others have tested positive and have since recovered. Also, 158 correctional officers who work at the jail are currently positive for COVID-19. One officer has died of the disease, the sheriff’s office said.

While Kennelly ordered new social distancing provisions, he once again denied other relief sought by the plaintiffs, including ordering the release of medically vulnerable detainees due to the pandemic. Kennelly wrote that detainees have recourse for such relief in state court — where inmates can ask for an emergency review of their bond conditions — and that it would not be appropriate for a federal judge to intervene. “The bottom line is that the plaintiffs have not shown that the bond reduction remedy offered by the state courts is any less effective than a federal remedy,” Kennelly wrote.

The injunction will likely remain in place until coronavirus is no longer a threat to spread among the jail population, the judge said. “Under ordinary circumstances, there is nothing constitutionally inappropriate about housing detained persons in groups and allowing them to come into contact with each other,” Kennelly wrote. “Currently we are not living in ordinary circumstances ... but once matters return to something approaching normal, it may be appropriate to loosen the requirements of the injunction.”...

Locke Bowman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday the ruling reflects that Kennelly “recognizes that the special circumstances of this pandemic” require the sheriff to take every reasonable precaution to limit the spread of the disease in the jail. “Our prayer is that this decision has meaningful effects on the lives and the safety of the men and women confined to the jail,” Bowman said.

Last week, Kennelly heard detailed testimony from experts on both sides of the issue. The assistant director of Cook County Jail testified that more than 175 tiers in the sprawling facility have been transitioned to single-cell housing, officials had spray painted “X’s” on the floors to try to keep detainees 6 feet apart, and inmates were being handed spray bottles to sanitize showers after use.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, meanwhile, continued to argue that not enough is being done to enforce social distancing — such as double-occupant cells and dormitories where dozens of inmates sleep together on cots is simply impossible, and inmates are paying for it with their health. “The virus is spreading rapidly in the jail since the issuance of this court’s order, and that is not surprising: People are sleeping within 3 feet of each other, eating and using showers in close proximity to each other, and touching the same surfaces,” the plaintiffs wrote in an ongoing request for a preliminary injunction....

As of Friday, the inmate population at Cook County Jail had dipped to just below 4,155 — its lowest mark in decades.

April 27, 2020 at 12:50 PM | Permalink

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