Thirty-eight Cook County Jail detainees and six jail staffers have tested positive for COVID-19, the sheriff’s office confirmed on March 26

The confirmed cases are evidence the virus is spreading rapidly at the jail that houses 5,000 detainees. Earlier this week, just two inmates and a corrections officer had tested positive for the virus.

A detainee at home being electronically monitored by the sheriff’s office has also tested positive, officials said last Friday.

Six have been confirmed negative for the virus and the results of 123 tests are still pending.

The county is working to reduce the jail population as quickly as possible to prevent further spread, said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The courts introduced an expedited bond review process earlier this week .

Non-violent pretrial defendants will be eligible for release. Women who are pregnant, older adults and people with underlying health conditions who are at risk of developing a severe illness due to COVID-19 will be prioritized.

“We’re talking about those who would face the worst outcomes if they were exposed to the virus,” Preckwinkle said. “We’re also talking about people who are in jail simply because they are too poor to pay the small monetary bond that has been set by a judge.”

Each detainee who is released is being screened so they don’t spread the virus to their family or others.

The jail has moved nearly all inmates to single cells so they can better follow social distancing guidelines, Sheriff Tom Dart said.

Pretrial defendants who cannot safely isolate at home will be helped by the county, the sheriff’s office and Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities to find temporary housing, Preckwinkle said, especially if they or a member of their home are showing symptoms.

Civil rights groups and justice reform advocates are calling on Dart to close the jail and stop the intake of new detainees. Dart said that’s not possible: “We do not have the ability to shut the doors here.”

But the flow of incoming detainees has slowed substantially, Dart said. At the beginning of the month, 200 new detainees were admitted to the jail daily. Now, it’s less than 70 daily on average, Dart said.

It was inevitable that someone at the jail would contract coronavirus, said Connie Manella, head of the Cook County Health and Hospital System. Officials knew once it did, it would spread rapidly.

“This novel virus is creating a very novel and daunting task at hand,” Manella said, adding that its easier to contain the virus now that because of the reductions in the number of detainees over the past decade. “I cannot imagine the situation if we were sitting with a population that not long ago was 11,000.”

The jail population is now 5,003, Dart said, which he said is among the smallest it has ever been. The sheriff’s office has worked with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office to substantially reduce the jail population over years.

About 20 to 30 detainees are being released each day under the expedited bond review process, Dart said. Attorneys are also sharing emergency motions and prison reform groups are paying bonds to get more detainees freed.

Organizers at the Chicago Community Bond Fund say the number of detainees being released is too small to make a difference.

An open letter penned by the group demanded all detainees cleared for release on bond be freed immediately since they are presumed innocent under the Constitution. Despite calls for mass de-carceration in the jail, Dart said the majority of detainees are not eligible for release because of the type of charges they face.

“The population in the jail as of today, about 70 to 75 percent, in that range, people are in on a violent charge,” Dart said. “Those are people that we can’t keep the community safe by releasing them.”

The sheriff’s office began screening detainees entering the jail for coronavirus as early as January, Dart said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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