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Covid Concerns Over Conditions Disproportionately Harming Black Inmates

“Some people have said we’re in the ‘post-pandemic’ era, but I do want to highlight that in our continued efforts to monitor COVID-19 in carceral settings more generally, we’re seeing locations that are having outbreaks that outpace any of the outbreaks that we’ve seen in the past,” said Neal Marquez, a research associate at Portland (Oregon) State University. “Prison facilities, jail facilities, and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] Facilities still are high-density places that are going to be susceptible to outbreaks…And so this is far from over for many carceral settings in the United States.”

Jail populations dropped in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic but have now rebounded in many facilities to levels seen in early 2020 or higher, according to figures from the Jail Data Initiative (JDI).

Chicago incarceration rates are on the rise, and as inmate populations grow, the virus continues to pose a threat inside Cook County Jail.

The positivity rate in Cook County Jail has decreased since the peak of Omicron, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) predicts Covid cases will sharply rise and fall during the cold months for the foreseeable future. Authorities anticipate jails and prisons will continue to be virus hotspots during variant surges.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office reports that as of Dec. 1:

  • 41 individuals in custody at Cook County Jail are currently positive for COVID-19
  • 10 individuals in custody who tested positive for COVID-19 have died while receiving treatment at local hospitals
  • 18 Cook County Sheriff’s employees are positive for COVID-19.

Marquez said that overcrowded conditions and lack of access to care help make COVID-19 more dangerous inside prisons, especially for minority populations, and these outbreaks are expected to continue.

Summary of the Demographic Characteristics of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) Prison Population

Incarceration rates in Cook County dropped sharply when the Coronavirus began its global rampage. Amid the empty streets and stay-at-home orders, the Illinois Department of Corrections reported only 1,177 sentences to Illinois state prisons in the first half of 2020, while 3,118 were sentenced in the second half of 2019.

On March 14, 2020, The Cook County Sherriff’s Office made a public statement to announce their new Covid safety measures, including denying entry to anyone with symptoms, holding incoming detainees for a week to screen for illness, and limiting inmates to one 15-minute visits per week. However, within a month, more than 350 inmates and officers had tested positive, making it the largest single-site of infections at the time.

“It’s just terrible. This is like being in hell- not jail, hell.”

Tommie Davis, Inmate

Sheriff Tom Dart fell under public fire for his handling of the virus because of the jail’s lack of safety measures and testing equipment. A federal lawsuit was filed against Dart for failing to take adequate action against what was called “a public health disaster.”

The class-action complaint stated, “[Cook County] Jail has repeatedly failed to separate persons exposed to COVID-19 from other detainees. Sanitation of surfaces and objects that are frequently touched by the infected and the not-yet-infected is non-existent. Personal hygiene is impossible because detainees do not have soap or hand sanitizer. These conditions violate applicable guidance of the CDC and ensure the continued rapid, uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 within the Jail and beyond.”

The number of sentences between March 2020 through June 2021 equaled less than a fourth of the average number during the last decade. However, as vaccinations became available, an influx of arrests reached pre-pandemic rates by December 2021. Infections in Cook County Jail lulled when positivity rates declined in the United States until the introduction of the Omicron variant. Despite a high vaccination rate among the population, almost 900 people had tested positive by January 2022—a spike nearly three times larger than the first outbreak in 2020. During the surge, inmates were subjected to a gruesome reality of how the virus was handled behind closed doors.

Detainees who fell ill were not put in quarantine for days after they showed symptoms, social distancing in the crowded jail became difficult, and rapid tests were a rare commodity. Inmates feared for their health, safety, and even lives. Max Lubbers of Injustice Watch quoted detainee Tommie Davis on February 8th, who lived in a sector where multiple inmates developed covid symptoms during the surge, yet many were removed from quarantine before receiving test results or were denied testing altogether. Davis told Lubbers, “It’s just terrible. This is like being in hell- not jail, hell.”

A 2008 investigation conducted by the civil rights department of the United States Department of Justice produced a federal report citing inadequate medical care for inmates, police brutality, and dangerous living conditions. Ever since, Cook County Jail has been infamous for enabling poor living conditions.

(ProPublica/Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The Chicago Government Data Report lists that Black people account for 42 percent of the nearly 8,000 Covid deaths in Cook County. CBS Chicago connects Black Chicagoans’ disproportionately high likelihood of dying from Covid to a systemic lack of access to quality healthcare, discrimination by healthcare providers, and vaccine hesitancy among certain communities.

According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Black people currently comprise 70 percent of the nearly 8,000 inmates held at Cook County Jail. The community is only 30 percent of Chicago’s population.

Marquez and colleagues published studies in JAMA in 2020 and 2021 showing that COVID-19 cases and mortality were much higher in the prison population. “We were seeing infection rates in the first 3 months that were five times higher in the US prison population — and over the first year, about three times higher — than the US general population.”

“We continue to work closely with Cermak Health Services, the Chicago Department of Public Health, as well as state and federal public health authorities to ensure that our COVID-19 protocols are either setting or following best practices,” Matthew Walberg, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told Yahoo News.

Since the start of the pandemic more than 100 organizations coordinated by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, signed an open letter to Cook County Jail about what was needed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Advocates say their concerns were largely ignored as inmates started dying.

Cover Photo by RODNAE Productions.

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