In places like Chicago’s Cook County Jail, summertime spikes in detainees are typical, usually coinciding with violence in the warmer months, meaning that the “delicate balance” they’ve put in place to protect against coronavirus quickly gets thrown off.
“I’m probably 500 people away from where this can’t work,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. “There are all these interlinking parts here where there’s not unlimited beds, there’s not unlimited space, there’s not unlimited correctional staff to watch them.” On a month-to-month basis, the jail is already beginning to see an uptick in the average number of detainees they’re getting, according to data provided by the jail.
That would mean pulling from a pool of detainees siloed in the jail’s quarantine bootcamp, created specifically for the pandemic to separate out those who are sick.
“With us being detainees they’re doing the best that they can with soaps, hand sanitizers, making sure we keep everything clean,” said Michael Allen, a detainee being housed in a specific part of the “camp” for those who have recovered from coronavirus. “I would just like to say I hope it comes to an end real soon.”
‘We were in a war’
“When I look back, it feels like the fog of war. We were in a war,” said Dr. Connie Mennella, Chairperson of the Department of Correctional Health with Cermak Health Services in Cook County. “There wasn’t specific guidance on what to do in jails,” she continued, “We knew it wasn’t if coronavirus was coming to the jail, if it’s in the city of Chicago, it’s coming to the jail.”
Since then, the numbers have gone from what once was a more than 90% positivity rate down to less than one, according to data provided by Cook County Health. Now the jail is arming itself with one of the biggest weapons any jail in the United States now has at its disposal, testing.
“A lot of them say ‘I don’t have it, I’m not sick.’ You may not be sick but you may have Covid-19,” said Victoria Furlow, an intake screener at the jail.
“You don’t have to be symptomatic, you don’t have to be a risk factor, we’re going to test you for Covid,” said Dr. Mennella.
Between May 8 and June 20, more than 85% of all their newly confirmed cases were identified during the intake process.
“We have a jail that can only maintain a limited population because of Covid-19 and we should be making sure that our attention is going after those that are causing harm to our community,” said Kim Foxx, Cook County State’s Attorney. “Our number one priority is making sure that jail does not become a hotspot once again.”
‘No one else was testing’
At one point in early April, the jail was labeled by one newspaper as “the largest known source for coronavirus infections” in the country, a title Dart contended was unfair for one simple reason, “No one else was testing.”
“We’re all sitting there saying to ourselves, what did we do wrong?” questioned Dart. “It comes back to the only thing we did wrong is that we were transparent.”
“In this crisis is an opportunity,” said Lenore Anderson, President of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, an organization that works in finding alternatives to incarceration. “The opportunity is to flip script on public safety, to do a 180 here and to really focus on what does it look like when we spend our investments on public health.”