This article was produced in partnership with WBEZ, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
The Cook County Jail in Chicago is one of the largest in the country. Sprawling across 96 acres on the Southwest Side, the facility houses more than 4,000 people, most awaiting trial. Its cramped living conditions made it a perfect petri dish for COVID-19.
Today, the jail is home to one of the largest known outbreaks in the country and has been a flashpoint in the national debate over how to contain the virus in correctional facilities. More than 9,400 cases have emerged in prisons across the U.S., according to an analysis by The Marshall Project. In the Cook County Jail, nearly 500 detainees and more than 300 correctional officers have tested positive. Seven people have died: six inmates and one guard.
Sheriff Tom Dart is now under fire for his oversight of the jail in the era of coronavirus. In a federal lawsuit, civil rights attorneys have blamed him for failing to curtail what they have called a “rapidly escalating public health disaster,” and the judge in that case has ordered Dart to improve sanitation, to expand social distancing and to report back on his progress.
At the same time, the judge said Dart had made a “significant, and impressive, effort to safeguard detained persons in his custody from infection by coronavirus.”
Dart has repeatedly defended his handling of the health crisis. While citing unique challenges — like weighing if a detainee might use hygiene supplies as a weapon, as one allegedly did this month by using soap inside a sock in an attack — he has maintained that his office has “been in front of this pandemic every step of the way,” from screening new admissions for the virus to supplying staff and detainees with hand sanitizer to educating detainees about social distancing.
But people who live and work inside the jail say otherwise.
WBEZ and ProPublica interviewed a dozen correctional officers, health care staff and inmates about how authorities responded to the crisis. They described a lack of personal protective equipment, inadequate testing and a spillover to community hospitals, as confusion and terror spread along with the virus. Taken together, their accounts offer potential lessons for other institutions that are now facing their own outbreaks.
Dart declined an interview, but his office responded to a list of questions. Below are people’s stories in their own words, edited for length and clarity. Some staff and detainees spoke to us on the condition that we not publish their names, because they were concerned about repercussions.
David Evans III, Correctional Officer and Chief Union Steward
I would say it was toward the end of February that I started getting phone calls from staff members saying: “I’m feeling sick, I’m feeling weak. My partners are going through the same problems, they’re coughing.” At first, people kind of shrugged it off as the flu or something like that. Then, once the pandemic hit, we knew at that point there was a problem.
Staff say the sheriff warned employees with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home. In a statement, the sheriff’s office said it began medical screenings of employees who returned to work after an absence on March 19. On March 22, the sheriff’s office announced that a Cook County correctional officer tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, two detainees also tested positive.
Keanna Ford, Former Detainee
We all heard it on the news. I was in the medical part of the jail because I was pregnant. And a lot of women were taking high blood pressure medicine or diabetes medicine. I remember the conversation clear as day. We said, “We need to get up out of here before we die.” We were scared. Some of us was crying.
Everybody got a bed and it’s close to each other, it’s just like a dorm room. We were all making sure our hands are clean. Make sure we talked about it. “How you doing? How are you feeling? Are you breathing OK?”
By me being pregnant, one of the guards told me they was praying for me to get out: “You are carrying another body inside of you.” I’m just praying that they can let the elderly people up out of there.
Just by word of mouth you hear: “Hey, this guy just has to go to the hospital. These inmates over here are all quarantined.”
We all just looked at each other like, “Let me get 6 feet away from you guys.” Because at that time we had no protection. It’s a really scary situation.
Correctional Officer A
We all pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to get some form of COVID-19. I mean, for some people, it’s scary. For other people, it’s just resignation.
Across the country, hospitals, nursing homes, jails and prisons are scrambling for supplies to fight COVID-19. Dart reassured the public that he had begun preparing in January and his office was taking actions to keep people in the jail safe.
But multiple staff members and detainees say that while the sheriff’s office sometimes supplied some soap, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, availability was limited.
Dart addressed the issue in a March press conference. By that point, there were 38 detainees and nine staff members who had tested positive. The sheriff’s remarks are excerpted below.
Tom Dart, Sheriff
I’ve had this thing come up now three times about soap. And I’ve told people: Please, I have a really complicated job. My staff does as well. Either stop lying, which you’re doing, or if you’re aware of somebody who does not have soap — unless your idea of fun is to make sure that person gets sick — I would suggest you’d give me the name of that person so I can get them some soap.
This is not going to end tomorrow or the following day, it’s just not going to happen. That’s wishful crazy thinking, and so thoughtful people put plans together, long-term plans. And that’s what we’ve done here.
Correctional Officer A
That’s all a joke. I had to fight to get gloves. I had to call in favors from other areas of the jail to get the basic surgical masks. We were on our own.
At one point PPE equipment was available. But it was locked up in an administrator’s office, and we’re getting yelled at by supervisors. “Why don’t we have it?”
“Well, I don’t have access to his office. Why are you yelling at me?”
And then it still took an additional two days to pass it out. Some of the equipment is so old, the bands were rotted.
On March 28, less than a week after the first reported cases of COVID-19 in the jail, the numbers soared: A total of 89 detainees and 12 sheriff’s office employees had tested positive.
My phone doesn’t stop ringing. These officers call me all night with concerns. And I want to talk to everyone. There will be times when I’m talking until 3 o’clock in the morning.
I saw officers that did not have masks. I saw officers that were confused on what was disinfectant and what was hand sanitizer. There’s no system set in place, where on a consistent basis that everybody is being given these things every day.
In court filings, the sheriff said he worked to obtain PPE and in light of national shortages “explored unconventional methods” of getting supplies, such as donations. The sheriff’s office also said in a statement that it provided a hotline number for staff to contact if they are having any issues with PPE.
Correctional Officer A
There was no onsite testing for employees at that point, so I went proactively to get it done elsewhere. Like, I had better do it just to be on the safe side. A week and a half later they called: “You’ve got it.” And I was like, “Great, so I’ve been walking around for a week and a half.” I was already working double shifts at the time.
I felt really guilty. I had a mild case. I walked around, possibly infecting the people I’m trying to protect.
Every decision I make there comes down to one thing: What is going to screw us the least? Because we’re all getting screwed. Like no matter what we do, we’re going to get screwed somehow.
The sheriff’s office said starting March 28 it took the temperature of employees entering and exiting the jail and sent away anyone who showed symptoms.
By March 31, there were 4,767 people in the facility — about 800 fewer than at the beginning of the month. To help reduce the jail’s population, Cook County prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges had expedited bond hearings, resulting in the release of scores of people who were accused of crimes but still waiting to go to trial. Dart said he assisted by helping identify detainees who would be “suitable for release.”
But, because most other court functions had been shut down, trials and hearings were delayed.
I’m supposed to go to court for a new sentencing hearing. And God willing, I’ll be getting time served. But instead of going to court and being let out, now I’m stuck here and it’s really messing with my mental health.
It’s hard for me to sleep. I’ve been putting in request after request to see my mental health care professional. Prior to this whole crisis, you can drop a medical slip for anything and they would call you and treat you. But now it’s like we’re just left to fend for ourselves. It’s really, really frightening.
They just recently started handing out face masks. But that’s only when the COs decide to. They want you to jump through hoops just to get basic things to protect yourself.
What do I do? I wrote a letter to my family. I told them I love them and if I should pass, I hope God can forgive me for all my sins.
County officials say they continued to provide mental health services throughout the pandemic.
The sheriff’s office said it created a team on April 2 to ensure PPE was being used properly.
The first COVID-19-positive person detained at Cook County Jail died on April 5. Jeffrey Pendleton was 59 and in jail on gun and drug charges. Pendleton had a $50,000 bond, which, in Cook County, means he would have had to pay $5,000 to go home while he awaited trial.
Vidal Martinez, Detainee
It made us want to break out of here, because they are letting us die. And knowing that that individual had never been proven guilty, that’s even worse.
It’s disturbing when we look outside the window and we see ambulances coming out of the county jail because it makes it feel like, “OK, when is it gonna be my turn?”
On April 6, two weeks after the first correctional officer tested positive, the sheriff made testing available to staff on-site. Cermak, a medical treatment facility for the jail, also obtained newly developed rapid test kits.
Within days, the number of known cases among detainees tripled, to more than 300 people. Two people had died.
The virus was also rapidly spreading among the staff, with 174 correctional officers testing positive. The sheriff was opening up unused parts of the jail to make room for social distancing and quarantining, which required more staff. Correctional officers say staff were forced to work 16-hour days.
These officers are being chewed up, spit out. The mandated work, the 16-hour days. You know, it’s a lot for anybody. Their immune systems are breaking down.
The sheriff’s office told WBEZ and ProPublica the mandated overtime was necessary “to provide a safe and secure facility.” The office also reassigned 328 sheriff’s deputies who usually work in the courts to come and staff the jail.
One employee received notice that he would be going to Division 6, which staff members say was ground zero for the virus.
Sheriff’s Staffer A
When I got the email, I was home. I looked at my phone, I was like: “You gotta be kidding me. You’re sending me into the hotbed where all the infected are.” I tried to keep it from the wife. But she knew something was wrong. I wasn’t talking. I was livid. I contemplated quitting.
I’ve seen what this virus can do. I saw a co-worker from the jail, who I’m talking to one day, and the next thing I know, he’s calling me saying, “Hey, man, I got oxygen flowing.” And he shows me a video of himself. He’s a mellow guy, and to see the look in his face — this wasn’t the same person. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but he looked like he was scared to death.
I cannot go over to the jail and bring this virus back to my children. So now when I come home, I throw all my clothes in the washing machine, I take a shower in the basement and I sleep in my basement. My son comes to the top of the stairs and I’m at the bottom of stairs talking to him, wearing a mask.
Health care staff also felt the strain.
The Cook County Health System hired additional nurses through a staffing firm to go to the jail. But inmates were also being sent to outside hospitals, including Cook County’s Stroger Hospital, where Elizabeth Lalasz works.
Elizabeth Lalasz, Nurse
My unit has turned into a COVID-only unit for the inmates at Cook County Jail. It’s quite stunning.
We have limits on the numbers of critical care beds and limits on the human beings who can take care of them.
Nurses have actually been the primary people taking care of everything because of the lack of PPE. We pick up the garbage, we are giving respiratory treatments — things that other workers within the hospital would normally be doing.
My union, [National Nurses United], is demanding a decarceration of all nonviolent offenders from the Cook County Jail. It’s really about decreasing the numbers of people who actually contract this virus and come into the hospital.
In their lawsuit against Dart, civil rights lawyers maintain that people who work and live inside the facility are in danger. In early April, they asked a federal judge to force the county to immediately release medically vulnerable detainees. The judge did not grant them that request, but did order the sheriff to improve sanitation.
Plaintiffs said some detainees were receiving masks and soap. However, they added, they lacked cleaning supplies for their cells, and testing was inadequate.
We have several elderly people here. They don’t have energy and their chest hurts. And staff only take their temperature and they tell them, “OK, since you don’t have a fever, nothing’s wrong with you.”
Regardless of the pandemic, we only clean our cells once a week. They give us some really small sized soaps, once a week. … It’s not enough.
You have to go to commissary and you have to get your cleaning supplies yourself. So if you don’t have any money, there’s nothing that you can really do. I mop myself with my own rags. I buy towels.
Multiple detainees who spoke with WBEZ and ProPublica expressed similar concerns about cleaning their cells.
The sheriff’s office said that detainees are provided with “ample” cleaning supplies to keep their living areas clean, and they are supervised by staff while cleaning their cells daily.
County officials said testing for the coronavirus has been informed by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and driven primarily by the availability of tests.
On April 19, the first correctional officer testing positive for the coronavirus, Sheila Rivera, 47, died.
Sheriff’s Staffer A
This is not like working in a jail like it was before. This is what I tell myself: You’re working in a petri dish. Be very, very, very, very mindful of it.
You don’t want to get too close to people, so you don’t want to have to physically restrain or detain anyone. You learn to de-escalate things a lot faster. When you tell people, “Hey man, you can’t stand in the doorway. Go back inside,” and they want to stand in there anyway, normally it would be: immediately grab a person, put them against the wall and handcuff them. Now it’s more: “Why are you standing in the doorway? What’s going on with you?”
You’re more pressed to really find out what’s going on. And you find some of them just want attention because they don’t have anybody to talk to at home. They’ll tell you: “I haven’t talked to my girl in a month. I have kids at home I haven’t seen.”
OK, I can understand it. I can really relate with you on that one. Because I’m sleeping in the basement right now.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. She’s also reported on mental health, poverty, labor and climate change. Email Heffernan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shannon_h.