Inside America’s jails and prisons there’s a delicate balance at play, weighing the usual demands of a typically crowded inmate population against the potent reality of an ongoing coronavirus pandemic. These precautions have mostly come in the form of single celling detainees, quarantining individuals who are either sick or symptomatic, reducing the overall population by releasing nonviolent low-level offenders and more.
In places like Chicago’s Cook County Jail, summertime spikes in detainees are typical, usually coinciding with violence in the warmer months, meaning that the “delicate balance” they’ve put in place to protect against coronavirus quickly gets thrown off.
“I’m probably 500 people away from where this can’t work,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. “There are all these interlinking parts here where there’s not unlimited beds, there’s not unlimited space, there’s not unlimited correctional staff to watch them.” On a month-to-month basis, the jail is already beginning to see an uptick in the average number of detainees they’re getting, according to data provided by the jail.
It means the jail may have to lose one of their main precautions of single celling and go back to putting two in a cell, following general Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that those who have recovered from coronavirus are not as likely to be infectious.
That would mean pulling from a pool of detainees siloed in the jail’s quarantine bootcamp, created specifically for the pandemic to separate out those who are sick.
“With us being detainees they’re doing the best that they can with soaps, hand sanitizers, making sure we keep everything clean,” said Michael Allen, a detainee being housed in a specific part of the “camp” for those who have recovered from coronavirus. “I would just like to say I hope it comes to an end real soon.”
‘We were in a war’
The number of confirmed cases at the jail went from 38 detainees in late March to over 250 just a week and a half later. In total, since their first confirmed cases in mid-March, more than 500 detainees ended up testing positive, seven of them died. More than 400 employees tested positive cumulatively as well, and three of them died.
“When I look back, it feels like the fog of war. We were in a war,” said Dr. Connie Mennella, Chairperson of the Department of Correctional Health with Cermak Health Services in Cook County. “There wasn’t specific guidance on what to do in jails,” she continued, “We knew it wasn’t if coronavirus was coming to the jail, if it’s in the city of Chicago, it’s coming to the jail.”
Since then, the numbers have gone from what once was a more than 90% positivity rate down to less than one, according to data provided by Cook County Health. Now the jail is arming itself with one of the biggest weapons any jail in the United States now has at its disposal, testing.
“A lot of them say ‘I don’t have it, I’m not sick.’ You may not be sick but you may have Covid-19,” said Victoria Furlow, an intake screener at the jail.
“You don’t have to be symptomatic, you don’t have to be a risk factor, we’re going to test you for Covid,” said Dr. Mennella.
Between May 8 and June 20, more than 85% of all their newly confirmed cases were identified during the intake process.
But it’s not just what’s happening on the inside, a lot of the population control comes from choosing whether to send someone to jail in the first place. By mid-April, Cook County jail had released about a fourth of its entire population and even months later it remains among its lowest headcount in history.
“We have a jail that can only maintain a limited population because of Covid-19 and we should be making sure that our attention is going after those that are causing harm to our community,” said Kim Foxx, Cook County State’s Attorney. “Our number one priority is making sure that jail does not become a hotspot once again.”
‘No one else was testing’
At one point in early April, the jail was labeled by one newspaper as “the largest known source for coronavirus infections” in the country, a title Dart contended was unfair for one simple reason, “No one else was testing.”
“We’re all sitting there saying to ourselves, what did we do wrong?” questioned Dart. “It comes back to the only thing we did wrong is that we were transparent.”
Since then, there have been outbreaks that have far surpassed Cook County’s cumulative total. Outside Columbus, Ohio, more than 1,300 inmates tested positive for coronavirus across three facilities in mid-April, with over 1,000 at the Marion Correctional Institution alone.
It’s hardly an unfamiliar story either in places like jails where sheer numbers combined with a lack of space make social distancing much more difficult than it is in the outside world. In total, just under 50,000 inmates nationwide have tested positive for coronavirus over the course of this pandemic, and at least 585 have died as a result of Covid-19, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project, a non-profit journalism organization collecting data on Covid-19 infections in state and federal prisons.
“In this crisis is an opportunity,” said Lenore Anderson, President of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, an organization that works in finding alternatives to incarceration. “The opportunity is to flip script on public safety, to do a 180 here and to really focus on what does it look like when we spend our investments on public health.”