Photo by Isaac Joel Torres

This opinion piece was written by Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia and appeared in the Chicago Tribune on March 20, 2020. 

Our Illinois state and local officials have been leading the nation in their response to COVID-19 by decisively shutting down restaurants, theaters and everywhere else people congregate and spread this new contagion. Yet, there is deafening silence when it comes to one of the vulnerable venues for transmission – our jails and prisons.

According to the Cook County, Illinois Sheriff’s website, as of March 18, 2020 there were 5,593 men and women held within Cook County Jail, most of whom have not been found guilty of a crime. Yet they are in jail and at risk for coronavirus; for many, this is simply because they can’t afford bail. The mayors, county officials and governors who are leading the charge on public health must also address what’s happening in our correctional systems, where social distancing is not an option.

The risks are enormous. Preventive measures such as frequent handwashing with soap and use of hand sanitizer are difficult practices to implement given the high number of people in custody. Personal protective equipment is limited among the general population and   correctional facilities are no exception.

Many incarcerated people have chronic medical conditions, increasing their vulnerability. Any rapid spread of the virus within an institution poses a significant threat to communities as law enforcement and first responders return home to their families. And just as we have extended our compassion to families unable to visit older relatives, we should do the same for children with incarcerated parents. 

It is within the power and expertise of the Judiciary to expeditiously review the cases of all pre-trial detainees being held within jails on bonds they cannot afford to pay and determine if they can safely be released, as was done in Travis County, TX and being planned in Clark County, NV.

With this in mind, it is unclear why we can’t provide similar efforts to preserve the public welfare in this time of crisis. Further, it is in the best interest of the public to review the cases of men and women housed in the Illinois Department of Corrections to identify all who are eligible for early release. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with other County agencies, has already begun a similar process by releasing individuals housed within the jail who are eligible for release due to their extensive medical needs and low-level threat to community safety.

For the men and women who will continue to live and work in these facilities, personal protective equipment must be made available in critical areas. Soap, hand sanitizer and CDC-approved cleaning agents must also be made readily available throughout the institutions.

Officials at the state and local levels have demonstrated that they are thoughtful leaders who care about the people they serve, responding to the voices of millions. Let us not forget about the voices that are muffled by concrete walls. 

Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist, is the former warden of the Cook County Jail and the current Leader in Residence at Chicago Beyond.