This article ran online at WTTW Chicago on March 24, 2020.
By Blair Paddock
Among those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are jail and prison populations, where people live in tight quarters, with potentially limited health care and access to basic needs like soap.
This week, at least three people tested positive for the coronavirus at Cook County Jail, including a correctional officer and two detainees.
Some advocates describe the situation as a ticking time bomb and are now calling for the release of elderly detainees and nonviolent offenders.
Former Cook County Jail Warden Nneka Jones Tapia, who is now with Chicago Beyond, a group addressing youth equity, said she’s concerned about the situation unfolding at jails and prisons.
“It’s a petri dish for this virus,” Jones Tapia said. “The particular focus has to be prevention in terms of minimizing the number of people who are incarcerated and at risk of exposure to the virus.”
The office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is also thinking about preventive measures, such as suspending visits and creating housing tiers for new arrivals in which they are observed for seven days for any symptoms of the virus.
Meanwhile, Cook County public defender Amy Campanelli is taking action to get people out of Cook County Jail. Late last week, she released an emergency petition calling for the release of people who might be at an elevated risk of contracting the virus, who are pregnant or have been charged with a misdemeanor, among other criteria.
“My clients have homes, they have places to go,” Campanelli said. “They’re not numbers, not detainees and they have lives.”
Campanelli hopes these conversations about reducing jail populations will continue after the crisis subsides.
“We don’t lock up 49,000 people because 1,000 will reoffend—that’s not how you do it,” Campanelli said. “This pandemic should make us all rethink about how many people we lock up.”