Apr 20, 2020
As the Coronavirus began spreading rapidly in Illinois in March, prisoners, guards, their families, protestors, the public defender’s office, and even the sheriff raised the alarm that Cook County Jail could become a center of contagion. Yet judges barred any kind of mass release, and insisted that no one could be let out without an individual hearing.
By April, it was too late. On April 8, the New York Times reported that Cook County Jail was the single biggest hotspot for COVID-19 in the entire country. By April 12, more than 300 inmates at the jail had tested positive for the disease and three had died. Public health officials believe infection is so widespread that releasing more prisoners at this point would itself contribute to spreading the disease. So the 4,500 prisoners still in the jail are left to stew in an infected mess.
The prisoners aren’t the only victims of this decision: more than 200 correctional officers and 35 other jail workers have tested positive. On April 10, nurses protested outside the jail, pointing out that infected jail workers go home every night, spreading the disease to the rest of the community.
The workers at the jail are especially vulnerable because they have been denied the resources that would make their jobs safer. According to David Evans III, chief union steward for correctional officers: “Frequent hand washing tools are not available for officers throughout the compound, nor is hand sanitizer, which is sporadically available or provided in such small amounts that officers must ration it even for themselves in some areas.”
By leaving prisoners to catch the disease and guards to work unprotected, county officials and judges have shown once again that they consider a whole section of Chicago’s population disposable.