Chicago Jail Has Largest Cluster of COVID-19 Cases in the Country

By Shani Saxon Apr 09, 2020

Advocates’ worst fears are coming true about the spread of COVID-19 among communities of colorBlack Americans in particular—and inside correctional facilities, with at least 1,324 confirmed cases and a minimum of 32 deaths currently tied to U.S. prisons and jails, The New York Times reports.

At least 350 of those confirmed cases can be traced back to Chicago’s Cook County Jail, making it the country’s “largest known source of coronavirus infections,” according to the Times. However, the actual number of infected people at Cook County is likely much higher because 4,500 of the residents and staff have so far not been tested. 

The Times reports:

[County] Sheriff [Thomas J.] Dart has established a quarantine area for inmates who have tested positive, and another to monitor those showing symptoms. The most serious cases—about 17 on [April 8]—have been admitted to hospitals. One jail inmate has died of what officials believe is complications from the coronavirus, although the medical examiner’s office has not yet determined an official cause of death.

“I’m confident we’re going to get through this,” Sheriff Dart said, “but I could really use some more definition about how long the virus can last in an environment like this.”

Correctional facilities across the country have been facing the rapid spread of COVID-19, causing fear and desperation among incarcerated people and officials. The Times reports some facilities have been forced to place residents with fevers into solitary confinement, and some prisons and jails are leaving sick people locked inside their cells for up to 22 hours per day in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. A few facilities are even shipping people diagnosed with COVID-19 to “hastily established microprisons,” reports The Times. 

“I’m worried sick. If I get this, I’m dead,” said Thomas Balsiger, 67, an incarcerated person at the La Tuna federal prison in Texas. Balsiger, who has a history of coronary heart disease, also told the news outlet that the prison isn’t doing enough to keep everyone safe. “This is outright reckless endangerment,” he said.

According to the Times:

The Times has identified at least 41 clusters of two or more coronavirus cases centered on prisons or jails. In addition to Cook County, other large clusters include the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, which is tied to more than 100 cases; the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, linked to more than 90 cases; and the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., where at least 58 inmates and staff have tested positive.

In New York City, which has borne the brunt of the U.S. outbreak, more than half of the jail population had been quarantined by Wednesday as the virus continued to spread through the jails on Rikers Island and in neighboring boroughs. The Department of Correction said 287 inmates, 441 correction staff and 75 health care workers had tested positive, and nearly 1,600 inmates had been released to try to reduce the toll.

Chicago’s Sheriff Dart says he has taken steps to try to slow the spread of the virus at Cook County. For starters, he now allows residents to use hand sanitizer, which is typically forbidden because of the high alcohol content. Dart also said he has “ensured that there was sufficient soap and bleach for cleaning.” 

Regardless of those efforts, the virus continues to spread. The Times reports advocates and families of incarcerated people have filed a lawsuit against Cook County. They are seeking the early release of “older Cook County inmates and those who have chronic medical conditions like respiratory illnesses and diabetes, which may make them particularly vulnerable to the virus,” according to The Times. 

The Times also reports Chicago protestors on Tuesday (April 7) took to their cars and drove around the jail while honking their horns, loudly demanding the early release of their loved ones.