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March 31, 2020

What is happening in the Cook County Jail?

Something very bad is happening in the Cook County Jail. And it’s getting worse as I write these words.

It has been one week since Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli stood before Cook County Chief Criminal Court Judge Leroy Martin, Jr. to argue that the “desperate times” for our nation and world demand bold action to protect the 5000 people confined in the Cook County Jail from the spread of the coronavirus—and to protect the correctional officers, healthcare workers, and legal workers who must enter the Jail on a daily basis, as well as all of us who share our communities with those brave workers.

Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

Campanelli had an urgent request of Judge Martin: act immediately to require the release of everyone in the Jail awaiting trial on misdemeanor or low-level, non-violent felony charges who has had bail set in their cases, but who sit in the Jail because they cannot afford the price of their freedom. None of these detainees has been convicted of their charges; all are presumed innocent.
A judge has already found that each and every one of them is eligible for release. Only their poverty keeps them locked up.


In ordinary times, there are very good reasons not to hold people in Jail simply because they are poor. But, as Campanelli told Judge Martin, these times are not ordinary. A Jail, like a nursing home or a cruise ship, is a dangerous petri dish where, once it takes hold, the coronavirus will be expected to spread rapidly. Now, reducing the pool of people in the Jail who are at risk of exposure to COVID 19 is a public health imperative.


Last Monday, March 23, as Campanelli made her arguments in court, there were news reports that single a correctional officer had tested positive for the virus. Alarm bells should have been going off. They weren’t. Instead of granting Campanelli’s request, Judge Martin implemented a laborious process, to take place over the remaining four days of the week, of case-by-case review of prior bond orders.


Photo: Chicago Tribune

In less than a week, COVID 19 infections have increased at a terrifying rate: on Saturday, there were 89 positive detainees and 12 positive correctional officers. As of 3/30, 134 detainees have tested positive.


This is out of control. Here are questions that demand answers:


Judge Martin, by any reasonable estimate, over a thousand prisoners awaiting trial on non-violent, low-level charges are still languishing in the Jail. How can you and the judges you supervise continue to allow these people to endure unnecessarily the risk of exposure to this deadly virus?


Sheriff Dart, all over the country we are facing a shortage of PPE for medical personnel and first responders. What protective gear is available to the corrections staff and the medical staff in the Jail who desperately need this equipment? And what training are you providing to non-medical staff on how to use and dispose of this equipment?


Sheriff Dart, you know the rapid spread of coronavirus will continue in the Jail. There will be many critically ill detainees. There will be deaths. How is Cermak Hospital, the Jail’s medical facility, preparing to cope with an onslaught of the sick and dying that will certainly overwhelm it? Why are you not urgently demanding that the Jail be rapidly depopulated to the greatest possible extent?


Photo: Chicago Magazine

Governor Pritzker, you are well aware of this deepening crisis. You possess sweeping executive authority. Why will you not use it to direct the immediate release of low-level, non-violent detainees from the Cook County Jail?

There will be massive human suffering in the County Jail in the coming weeks. It has already started. Some illness and death, though, is preventable. The time to act is now.


A primary focus of the MacArthur Justice Center during this time will be ensuring the health and safety of those detained in jails and prisons. Please see our efforts HERE.


  • Campanelli had an urgent request of Judge Martin:

  • None of these detainees has been convicted

  • On 3/23, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli appeared in court to argue

  • Instead of granting Campanelli’s request, Judge Martin

  • In less than a week, COVID 19 infections have increased