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Protect Public Health through Decarceration - CALL-IN TODAY!

Updated: Apr 6, 2020


Federal Lawsuit Demands Release of People from Cook County Jail to Prevent Coronavirus Deaths

Read the complaint and declarations from medical experts and people currently incarcerated in Cook County Jail. A press conference will be aired on CCBF’s Facebook page today at 11am.

Late last week, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, and the MacArthur Justice Center filed an emergency class-action lawsuit against Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, asking for the immediate release of medically vulnerable people in the Cook County Jail in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.  The lawsuit filing follows three weeks of campaigning after the release of an open letter to Cook County officials endorsed by more than 100 community, policy, and legal organizations demanding the mass release of people from Cook County Jail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The Cook County Jail is being overrun by COVID-19. Currently, the infection rate inside the jail is nearly 40 times the overall rate in Cook County. And while the rest of us have been able to engage in social distancing to protect ourselves, both detainees and jail staff alike have alerted us that numerous people inside the jail, many with serious medical conditions, are housed in open areas where social distancing is impossible. If something isn’t done to reduce the number of people in Cook County Jail, there is every reason to believe that people will needlessly die,” said Stephen Weil of Loevy & Loevy.

The lawsuit also challenges the current conditions of the Cook County Jail, alleging that the jail is unable to provide access to basic hygiene to mitigate the spread of COVID-19–including means for frequent handwashing with soap and water and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. 

“The law is crystal clear on this point,” said Charlie Gerstein, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. “You simply may not jail people in conditions that expose them to an intolerable risk of illness and death, and that’s exactly what Dart is doing at this very moment. We’ve asked the federal court to immediately put a stop to this ongoing crisis.”

The first person in the Cook County Jail tested positive for COVID-19 just two weeks ago on March 23rd. Since then, an entire division of the jail has been quarantined. While at least 234 people jailed and 78 staff have tested positive as of April 5, doctors at the jail’s health center estimate that the actual rate of infection is three to four times that amount. 

When COVID-19 spreads inside a jail, both people detained and staff are at risk. Every day, hundreds of jail employees working on three different shifts travel into and out of the jail. Each employee could potentially be carrying and transmitting COVID-19  not only within the jail, but also in their homes and neighborhoods. The rapid spread of infection within the jail also ensures many people become seriously ill at the same time, contributing to the strain on the healthcare system and threatening the well-being of all Cook County residents. “Thousands of people are caged in Cook County Jail, many simply because they can’t afford to pay bond. The living conditions in Cook County Jail are not suitable for human beings; people are living like animals. There is no such thing as social distancing because people are squeezed together like sardines in a can. People’s lives are in jeopardy inside the jail. Our elected officials are not doing enough. If we don’t do something, people are going to die,” said Flonard Wrencher, an advocate with Chicago Community Bond Fund who was previously incarcerated in Cook County Jail.

In addition to requesting the release of medically vulnerable people in the Cook County Jail, the lawsuit asks that people remaining in the jail be housed in accordance with CDC guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

“There are now 234 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among persons detained in the County Jail, and growing daily,” said Locke Bowman, Executive Director of the MacArthur Justice Center. “Cook County Jail has become a petri dish for COVID-19. We are all in this together—those who are free and those being detained. Allowing this outbreak to expand as it has, endangers lives of detainees and jail staff as well as family members, essential workers, first responders, and frontline medical caregivers and all of the rest of us.”

-From Chicago Community Bond Fund blog

The Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) and community organizations across Chicago have demanded the decarceration of Cook County Jail in the midst of COVID-19. CCBF penned an open letter to Cook County with the following demands to protect the health of all Cook County residents, including those incarcerated in Cook County Jail and in their homes on electronic monitoring:

  • Cook County should immediately release anyone incarcerated in Cook County Jail on an unaffordable money bond (and not onto electronic monitoring unless already ordered by a judge). If a judge has given someone a money bond, it means that they’ve determined the person is cleared for release pretrial. Their ongoing incarceration due solely to access to money is deeply unfair and unethical, especially during this pandemic.

  • No new people should be admitted to Cook County Jail on money bonds. Admission of as many people as possible should be avoided. The courts should provide emergency bond reviews for all incarcerated people who request them with an increased mandate to use all options other than incarceration.

  • Cook County should immediately release individuals over the age of 50 or with compromised immune systems from Cook County Jail. Research has shown that these individuals are at the highest risk for contracting and experiencing the most serious effects of COVID-19.

  • The Cook County Sheriff’s Office and Pretrial Services Division should immediately change their protocols around electronic monitoring (EM) and home confinement to permit liberal movement (the ability to leave one’s home). Currently, people on Sheriff’s EM are required to provide documentation of a scheduled doctor’s visit to be granted the ability to leave their home. They are routinely denied permission to go to the grocery store or leave their homes to perform other essential tasks of life. The Sheriff’s office typically requires 72 hours advance notice to review and approve these requests. Gaining this documentation for a medical visit can often be extremely difficult due to privacy protections placed on medical providers and the difficulty of obtaining a letter over the phone. We are calling on the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to allow for automatically approved movement to allow people on EM to obtain groceries and other supplies, seek medical treatment, collect school meals, and provide elder and child care in other households. The 12 hours of movement per day policy, now guaranteed to all people on mandatory supervised release (“parole”) by the Illinois Department of Corrections, should be treated as the least possible movement allowed during the pandemic.

  • The ability to pay money bonds and secure pretrial release for people currently incarcerated in the jail or on EM should not be delayed or inhibited in any way.

  • People eligible for electronic monitoring must continue to be released into the community. If a person is ordered to EM but does not have access to approved housing, they should be immediately returned to court for a rehearing on their conditions of release.

  • If courts remain open, appearance at non-essential criminal court dates should be waived to avoid unnecessary travel and social contact. All in-person pretrial check-ins or other mandated appearances (such as drug testing) should also be waived.

  • Cancellation of court dates should not delay anyone’s release from Cook County Jail. Given that 70% of people released from Cook County Jail return directly to the community, any failure to resolve court cases at the same pace will increase the number of people in jail and thus the threat to their individual health and public health.

  • A moratorium should be placed on “turnarounds,” the process by which someone sentenced to time served travels from CCJ to an Illinois Department of Corrections facility to dress in and dress out on the same day. People sentenced to time served should be released directly from Cook County Jail.

  • Health care access for anyone remaining in Cook County Jail must be liberally provided and unfettered.

  • Access to phone calls and video “visitation” should be expanded for all incarcerated people right now and moving forward. This access should be provided free of charge.

  • The right to vote must be protected for anyone who remains incarcerated pretrial.

  • Personal hygiene, cleaning, and sanitation supplies should be made available free of charge to anyone that remains incarcerated. Hand sanitizer and other essential preventative products must be permitted and should not be considered “contraband.”

Read the full letter here.

CCBF has also worked with various legal/law councils and groups to write an open letter to the Illinois Supreme Court, requesting immediate action on COVID-19 that was submitted on 3/23/20.


The situation at Cook County Jail has continued to worsen dramatically. More than 150 incarcerated people have now tested positive for COVID-19. If county officials don't act soon, many more people will continue to become infected. Many will suffer serious illness and death. Starting Thursday (4/2), we are asking for people to once again pick up their phones and help us sound the alarm. If you've called or emailed once, we are asking you to do so again. With the rapid spread of coronavirus inside Cook County Jail, each person released as fast as possible helps. The longer the county waits to act, the more lives will be lost.

CALL COOK COUNTY STATE'S ATTORNEY KIM FOXX, SHERIFF TOM DART, AND CHIEF JUDGE TIMOTHY EVANS AND DEMAND THEY DECARCERATE IN THE NAME OF PUBLIC HEALTH! SCRIPT: Sample Script: Office of the Chief Judge Phone: (312) 603-6000 Email: “Hi, my name is ______ and I live in _________. I’m calling to demand that the Cook County Chief Judge take steps to dramatically lower the number of people in jail in response to COVID-19. This means facilitating bond review hearings for people currently in jail and instructing judges not to admit new people to the jail. In addition, the Chief Judge should ensure everyone in the Pretrial Services home confinement unit has permission to leave their homes and is not on 24 hour curfew during the pandemic.” State’s Attorney Office Phone: (312) 603-1880 Email: “Hi, my name is ______ and I live in _________. I’m calling to demand that the Cook County State’s Attorney Office take steps to dramatically

lower the number of people in jail in response to COVID-19. This means declining to prosecute most cases, not filing new violations of bond or probation conditions, and instructing line prosecutors to support release of people currently detained pretrial in Cook County Jail in bond hearings.” Sheriff’s Office Phone: (312) 603-6444 Email: “Hi, my name is ______ and I live in _________. I’m calling to demand that the Cook County Sheriff’s Office take steps to dramatically lower the number of people in jail in response to COVID-19. In addition, the Sheriff should loosen movement restrictions for people on electronic monitoring and improve access to phones, video “visitation,” and and make sanitation, hygiene and cleaning supplies available free of charge to anyone that remains incarcerated during the pandemic.

If they tell you they can’t help:

“We are in a moment of crisis and need all county officials to do everything in their power to keep people safe. Incarcerated people are among the most vulnerable during this pandemic, we need you to do everything in your power to meet these demands, whether that’s taking unprecedented action or working with other county stakeholders.”

More resources about the call-in and decarceration can be found on CCBF's website.

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