Alarm grows as Cook County, state struggle with what to do with the incarcerated in the face of COVID-19

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — Officials knew two weeks ago just what kind of crisis loomed outside the front doors of the sprawling Cook County Jail.

COVID-19 had just been declared a pandemic. More than 5,500 detainees were housed in close quarters inside the Southwest Side facility, with new arrivals coming daily from all corners of the county. Conditions were ideal for the new disease’s unchecked spread.

A potential disaster, as Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli put it. A huge problem, Sheriff Tom Dart added, noting, “there is no playbook here.”

In the Illinois Department of Corrections, too, alarms were sounding. Advocates, attorneys and loved ones of the system’s 40,000 inmates watched anxiously, wondering what could be done to protect a population with nowhere to shelter.

And so authorities were quickly confronted with the challenge to strike a balance. Which would better protect public safety: keeping people behind bars, or letting them out to join the public in isolation efforts to try and slow the escalating coronavirus emergency?

Some expedited releases have begun, but advocates say neither the state nor the county has pivoted fast enough in the face of the growing public health crisis. Instead, COVID-19 has highlighted flaws they have been complaining about for years — mass incarceration, massive bureaucracy, and poor health care and conditions behind bars.

For more than a week, the number of infected detainees at Cook County Jail has grown steadily: from two on Monday, to 17 on Wednesday, to 101 on Sunday. In IDOC, officials reported that over four days, the combined number of staff and inmates who tested positive had jumped from six to at least 26.

To date, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has offered little in the way of specifics on what review process is in place, and IDOC has confirmed a mere six inmates have been released early so far, slowed partly by a rule that released inmates have secure housing. The first death of an inmate was announced Monday, a man who was being housed at Stateville Correctional Center.

Cook County appeared to be doing more, as the jail population stood at what appeared to be a record low level — about 5,000 as of Friday, down from nearly 5,600 in mid-March. New arrivals are kept away from the jail’s main population for their first week; released detainees are screened for symptoms as they leave.

Some say it may be too late for Illinois jails and prisons to stay ahead of the virus’s curve.

“If there have been (releases), there have been far too few, and it’s too late,” said Jobi Cates, executive director of the Restore Justice Foundation, a state prison advocacy group. “Whatever efforts we make now are going to be triaging. I am horrified. I am scared. … We didn’t marshal our resources two weeks ago, three weeks ago, four weeks ago. Vulnerable people in prisons are going to die at a higher rate. It also means staff in those prisons are at greater risk.”

Prison and jail conditions

As the pandemic raced into Illinois, families and loved ones of the incarcerated started to worry.

The measures the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including staying 6 feet away from others, washing your hands repeatedly, and using hand sanitizer when you can’t, seemed almost impossible to abide by inside a prison or jail.

State prison advocates immediately began collecting emails from inside IDOC’s prisons and launched family members with a battery of questions to ask inmates during phones calls to find out how the system was responding.

How much was being done to protect inmates and staff alike seemed to vary by facility, the advocates said. There were some positive reports, including increased phone time for inmates, but other dispatches were troubling.

Some facilities were reportedly on lockdowns that were restricting movement, limiting the ability for inmates to get to showers. Others were hearing about inmates getting a quarter-cup of soap handed out every other day, no sanitizer or cleaning supplies, and lack of protective gear for staff.

“I normally don’t feed off into the media hype about most things, but it’s hard not to with this whole Corona madness,” one inmate described in an email to a loved one. “I’m assuming cases will start showing up here any time now, if not already, and will devastate our population in Illinois’ prisons.”

As for the jail, one detainee who was released from Cook County Jail about two weeks ago told the Tribune there was cleaning done in some of the common areas and that some guards started wearing masks. But other precautions seemed impossible, including social distancing and the recommended hand-washing.

Most of what he learned about what was happening came from his mother or watching TV.

The detainee, whose release was planned just before the county began early jail exits, said to protect himself, he used a sock to hold the phone during calls and also bought, and shared, extra soap he was able to purchase from the commissary.

“It feels good to be out,” he said. “Now I can take more precautions. I can do things to not catch the virus. In there, we can’t do nothing at all.”

Cathryn Crawford, the litigation director for the Lawndale Christian Legal Center who is also seeking releases, said reports she was getting as recently as Friday still included lack of access to sanitizer for inmates, not enough soap — detainees were given one small bar for a week — and continued worry that phones, which were becoming the only way of communication as the virus forced the cancellation of visits, were not being adequately cleaned between calls.

Taking precautions

Dart on Friday vehemently denied the persistent allegations that his facilities lack soap and proper sanitary supplies.

“Individuals, people who are not getting soap, let us know. I would suggest it’s made up because we’re giving soap to everybody, we’re putting hand sanitizer in living units, is that the conduct that people are saying, ‘no, no soap for you?’ Of course not.”

Last week, the jail implemented a plan to keep the majority of detainees in Cook County Jail housed in their own individual cells, an attempt to emphasize “social distancing,” Dart said.

The sheriff’s office is reopening unused barracks that formerly housed participants of a boot camp program. One building will house those who are infected; another will house detainees under observation.

Once those are in use, Dart said Friday, he could keep detainees appropriately “socially distant” from each other if the jail population holds at about 5,000. Dart estimated that 70 to 75% of detainees were locked up on violent charges.

“There’s no notion that we’re going to be able to empty the jail,” he said. “There’s violence in our community, yes, there’s people who commit violent acts, there’s some bad people in this world and those people cannot be released.”

Jail exits

While the state of Illinois has said little about release from prisons, the process of releasing Cook County Jail detainees has played out largely in public.

After the alarms were sounded on March 13, officials from the public defender’s office and prosecutors began working with sheriff’s representatives to identify possible candidates for release.

They agreed on a slate of detainees and brought the cases before a judge in an unannounced court call the next week, separate from the two duty courtrooms designated to handle emergencies during the widespread court shutdown.

The hearings were efficient and conducted without fanfare, since both prosecutors and defense had consented to each release ahead of time.

But after a week, just 100 people had been released, according to Campanelli, leading her to move for a speedy mass release, with support of public health advocates.

Campanelli filed a wide-ranging request to allow judges to let defendants go en masse — potentially hundreds at a time, with the stroke of a pen.

“Bringing each individual case before a judge, it’s taking too long,” she said in court last week.

LeRoy Martin Jr., presiding judge of the Criminal Division, declined, saying that procedurally it would only be appropriate for each case to be reviewed on its own.

But in response to her request, he implemented a massive change in how the bail reviews would be conducted. Each case would be heard over the course of the next few days in an attempt to get every possible case before a judge quickly.

Prosecutors bristled. They had already agreed to releases in 400 other cases, First Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Magats said that morning. The defendants were ready to be put on the schedule and released after the quick perfunctory hearing prosecutors had anticipated. Campanelli later told the Tribune that prosecutors had not notified her office ahead of time about those.

Instead, partially since Martin’s order required each case to be brought before the judge to which it was already assigned, the procedure was upended.

One man’s release

Multiple times, prosecutors allege, 51-year-old Sammy Blanchard sneaked into a Chicago auto parts supplier through a broken door and made off with merchandise.

He has been locked up for the burglaries since July. But on Thursday, his case was among hundreds brought back into court for a fresh chance at release as part of the attempt to reduce numbers under the virus threat.

Judge William Hooks, presiding over a near-empty courtroom, signed off on Blanchard’s release — then, in a somewhat unusual move, directed prosecutors to call the store and let it know.

“Indicate that, in large part, I’m doing this based on circumstances we find ourselves in nationally,” Hooks instructed. “But I don’t want any engine blocks moving.”

Blanchard was one of hundreds of defendants released in the past week. But the process has not been entirely smooth.

Foxx’s office said the process was slowed because some names that public defenders put forth for release had serious criminal backgrounds or were also facing charges in more serious cases, including domestic violence and murder.

Their inclusion was apparently inadvertent, and public defenders quickly withdrew those requests for bond review when they came up in court.

For Crawford of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, who is not a public defender but has been scrambling over the past two weeks to get hearings, the process has moved too slowly. And a population of 5,000 is still too high.

“We are worried about the health of our young people,” she said. “They are scared and their family members are scared. It is a very unstable and frightening place for people to be right now.”

State’s plans unclear

IDOC, meanwhile, has continued to say little about any specific planned process or an anticipated number of releases, though advocates said they have heard some 100 prisoners could be on a pathway to leaving state custody.

The Tribune on Friday first reported the release of six women housed on a special wing of the Decatur Correctional Center that houses inmates who have given birth while in custody.

“Oh my goodness, there was no words,” Mandi Grammer, one of women, told the Tribune on Friday morning from her mother’s home in downstate Illinois. “It almost hasn’t set in yet, the reality of coming home. It’s amazing.”

The quiet release of the women was celebrated by advocates, but they noted that this was a remarkably small number of inmates, considering a prison population that tops 40,000.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, said he believes there are about 13,000 inmates, excluding sex offenders, who could be considered for release based on existing statutes and IDOC rules.

Several organizations said it was time for the state to consider more aggressive and nontraditional ways of release, including gubernatorial commutations or even seeking support from local prosecutors for re-sentencings. They also encouraged Pritzker to add more staff and work harder to help develop release plans.

“We now have confirmed cases inside. And it is growing rapidly. That is extremely concerning,” said Mills. “From our point of view, the pool should be much bigger. … They are being too conservative. The problem is the virus is moving faster than the department is. We have a limited time before it is everywhere.”


©2020 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.