Our Response to COVID-19

Our hearts and thoughts go out to those directly affected by this unprecedented event and we appreciate those on the front line working to contain the coronavirus. We continue to monitor the situation, to work closely with our allies on the ground, and to call on local and state officials to address public health concerns around COVID-19. Our work continues to focus specifically on how COVID-19 impacts the detained population—one of the most vulnerable to the pandemic.
All of our offices are closed in response to guidance from the CDC and local authorities; we are continuing our work remotely. Please note that under the circumstances, our receipt of and response to legal mail will likely be delayed. 





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.





The Illinois office has signed onto the Chicago Community Bond Fund’s open letter to Cook County regarding COVID-19 and Cook County Jail. According to the Illinois office, roughly 1,500 of Cook County Jail’s inmates awaiting trial are being held only because they can’t afford a money bond—and they remain one of the most vulnerable to COVID19. This is both a constitutional violation and a public health disaster. The Illinois office calls for their immediate release.

On 3/20/20, the Illinois office submitted an amicus brief in support of Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli’s emergency petition to have detainees (including those with medical conditions, pregnant women, non-violent offenders, and those who are eligible for probation) immediately released from jail because of the risk of the coronavirus infection.

On 3/23/20, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli appeared in court to argue for the release of those detained populations most vulnerable to COVID-19. After hearing arguments, Cook County Criminal Court Chief Judge LeRoy Martin, entered an order requiring criminal legal stakeholders to move forward with expedited bond review and increased frequency of bond hearings in order to reduce the jail population.

Elderly prisoners and those with underlying health conditions are being punished by confinement, not given likely death sentences. We call for the immediate release of the detained population—one of the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

We joined a coalition of the area’s leading civil rights attorneys and community advocates and filed three cases seeking release of prisoners: a federal class action suit against the Governor and Illinois Department of Corrections; a federal habeas corpus action; and a direct action to the Illinois Supreme Court. All three cases demand the swift release of those prisoners most vulnerable to the epidemic before they fall victim to it.  Copies of the Federal complaint and its attachments can be found here and here. The Petitions filed in the Illinois Supreme Court can be found here and here.

On 4/3/20, alongside the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Loevy & Loevy, and Civil Rights Corps, we filed an emergency class action lawsuit against Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, asking for the immediate release of medically vulnerable people in the Cook County Jail in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

On 4/9/20, Judge Kennelly ordered Sheriff Thomas Dart to implement additional social distancing and sanitary measures as part of his constitutional obligation to protect pretrial detainees in his custody.

On 4/27/20, Judge Kennelly ordered Sheriff Thomas Dart to implement social distancing measures for people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. With few exceptions, the order dictates that people incarcerated in the jail can no longer be housed in the same cell with another person and that most dormitory housing must be stopped.

On 5/11/20, Sheriff Thomas Dart filed a notice of appeal, asking the Seventh Circuit Court to release his office from a preliminary injunction ordered in Mays v. Dart.

On 5/20/20, alongside a coalition of civil rights organizations, we filed an amended suit in a class action case against Governor Pritzker demanding that state officials speed the release of prisoners who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19.

On 6/23/20, alongside the Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli and a broad coalition of community groups, activists, and attorneys, we filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago for denying people in police custody access to counsel and phones. The lawsuit states that the City’s history of unlawful refusals became more widespread following the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent citywide protests over police brutality and racism.

We continue to monitor the progress of the county stakeholders and their commitment to reduce the jail population. As of 1/21, that progress is insufficient. The population of the Cook County Jail stands at 5,356. For a more comprehensive breakdown, click HERE.



The Louisiana office has signed onto a letter to Louisiana officials regarding COVID 19 prevention and protection in Louisiana facilities. The Louisiana office has also condemned the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office for opposing bond reductions for persons awaiting trial on misdemeanor and non-violent charges. Assistant District Attorneys in the office of Leon Cannizzaro, Jr., have filed objections to bond reduction motions filed on behalf of such persons in numerous misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases. The result, according to the Louisiana office, is an increase of the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the community at large.

On 3/26/20, the Louisiana office submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of an emergency habeas corpus petition filed by the Orleans Public Defenders. The brief argues that release of persons held on non-violent felony charges is essential to avoid undermining the City’s efforts to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the community at large.

On 4/6/20, alongside the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, and Court Watch NOLA, the Louisiana office called on Mayor LaToya Cantrell and New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Superintendent Shaun Ferguson to end arrests for misdemeanor and nonviolent offenses in response to the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 in the city.

On 4/8/20, after the NOPD refused to change arrest policy during the pandemic, we responded.

On 5/1/20, the New Orleans Police Department ended its use of harassing “informational vehicle checkpoints” that were used to provide information regarding the stay-at-home order in Orleans Parish and to check that vehicle occupants were wearing seatbelts and that drivers had a registration and proof of insurance.

On 12/17/20, the City Council unanimously voted to pass Ordinance 33020, which now requires NOPD officers to issue a summons instead of arrests for people suspected of low-level offenses and misdemeanor violations.




The Mississippi office issued a letter to government officials warning about the dangers of a coronavirus outbreak in Mississippi’s prisons and jails. According to the Mississippi office, one of the biggest public health concerns is that such an outbreak could result in Mississippi’s limited number of ICU beds and respirators being overrun with dozens of patients from a single prison or jail.  

The new report identifies roughly 2,500 detainees who have been in jail longer than 90 days.  More than 575 people have been stuck in county jails over a year.  The MacArthur Justice Center estimates that Mississippi counties spend at least $85 million each year on pretrial incarceration.  The report is available at www.MSjaildata.com.

On 4/16/20, alongside the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, we filed an emergency petition for release on behalf of 7 medically vulnerable people currently held by ICE at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez—who have a severe risk of contracting COVID-19.

As of 1/4/21, the Mississippi Department of Corrections hasn’t disclosed if any of its 108 reported prison deaths in 2020 were caused by COVID-19, after reporting that over 1400 inmates have been infected since the pandemic’s start. The lack of information on the prison death causes is a public safety threat, and the Mississippi office filed a Freedom of Information request for the prison death numbers.



The Missouri office has co-written a letter to local and state officials on COVID19 concerns and policy recommendations with Arch City Defenders, ACLU Missouri, Action St. Louis, and the Migrant and Immigration Community Action Project. The letter calls on local and state officials to address the public health concerns and how they specifically impact marginalized and vulnerable populations.

In light of the spread of COVID-19 and the well-documented risks for detained populations, the Missouri office is asking a federal court to curtail statewide parole revocation proceedings and release certain categories of people incarcerated solely for parole violations.

On 11/12/20, a federal court ordered the Missouri Department of Corrections to overhaul the state’s broken parole revocation process—ensuring counsel is appointed, parolees are informed and empowered, and hearings are prompt.