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Cook County Jail staffers raise complaints about conditions as sheriff’s office assures steps taken to stem COVID-19

Saturday, April 04, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau

Cook County Jail staffers don’t have proper access to personal protective gear and hand sanitizer despite close contact with detainees in a facility where COVID-19 is spreading quickly, according to the correctional officers’ union and attorneys who have represented jail staff — allegations the sheriff’s office strenuously denies.

In one instance, an officer without protective gear escorted a detainee from the jail to the courthouse and back this week, only to realize upon return that the detainee had a confirmed infection, the union said. A few days later, officers opened a box of N95 respirators to find that the elastic that secures the mask to the face had deteriorated, according to the union, leaving them unusable.

While much of the public concern over the jail as a coronavirus hot spot has centered around detainees, it is just as important to ensure that the staffers inside remain healthy, said Teamsters Local 700 Vice President Anthony McGee.

“The correctional officers are protecting society right now, not only from accused criminals that otherwise would be in our local neighborhoods, but they are also protecting them from this current pandemic that’s taking place,” McGee said. “They’re housing these individuals on a daily basis, and they’re in direct contact ... putting not only their lives in jeopardy, but their families’ lives as well.”

Protective equipment, along with hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, is readily available at the jail, according to the office. Sheriff Tom Dart has repeatedly denied allegations that conditions at the facility are unsanitary or inadequate.

“As has been said repeatedly, hand sanitizer, soap, bleach, cleaning supplies and PPE are available in every part of the jail,” spokesman Matt Walberg said in a statement to the Tribune.

As of Tuesday, 141 detainees had tested positive at Cook County Jail, along with 25 employees of the sheriff’s office. The facility has begun putting detainees in single cells to facilitate social distancing, and opened up unused buildings to act as isolation and treatment centers for sick detainees.

Efforts to release detainees and help stem the disease’s spread have led to an enormous drop in the jail population — a decrease of about 19% in the past three weeks.

But conditions behind the walls are “unconscionable, reflecting a disregard for human life,” said attorneys who have represented jail staffers in unrelated litigation.

The attorneys made eyebrow-raising claims in a letter to Dart and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, claims that by their own admission they have not verified.

Among their accusations: The thermometer guns used to check employees’ temperatures were not meant for use on humans; that hand sanitizer has not been distributed to staff; that many detainees are often not actually placed in single cells; and that access to N95 respirator masks is spotty even for medical personnel.

Marni Willenson, one of the attorneys, told the Tribune that while the claims in the letter have not been checked out, she has no reason to doubt her clients’ account of their conditions.

“Some of this is so basic,” she said. “How can you not make sure you have hand sanitizer available to every employee in that facility when you need it?”

A statement from the sheriff’s office said the effort was a “throw-the-kitchen-sink letter riddled with false allegations.”

A letter in response from the sheriff’s legal counsel reiterates that “massive amounts” of personal protective equipment and sanitizer are available, and that attorneys are undermining staffers’ safety by “generat(ing) unreasonable fear during a viral pandemic instead of solving that fear through informative and complete decisions.”

McGee, of the correctional officers’ union, said they have stepped in to provide hand sanitizer to officers. But supplies are still inadequate, and personal protective gear is unevenly distributed, he said.

Of particular concern was an incident Tuesday morning, when an officer escorted a coronavirus-positive detainee from the jail to the courthouse and back. That trip necessitated close contact with the detainee for at least half an hour, the union officials said.

A statement from the sheriff’s office confirmed that incident, saying it was contrary to protocol and that the matter has been addressed with the officer’s supervisor. It is unclear whether the detainee was contagious; both the detainee and the officer had access to personal protective equipment and it should have been used, according to the statement.

A few days later, officers opened a box of N95 respirators only to find that the elastic that secures the mask to the face had deteriorated to the point they were useless, McGee stated.

In response, sheriff’s officials said they had received no report of the faulty masks via the hotline set up to report such allegations.

The jail has put teams in the jail on each shift to ensure staffers are using personal protective equipment, and on Thursday began requiring staffers to wear surgical masks in accordance with guidelines from the state public health department, they said.

“We have been working closely with Teamsters Local 700 and all of the unions that represent our staff to address their questions about employee safety,” the statement reads. “They are understandably concerned, as is the Sheriff’s Office, about protecting their health during this unprecedented pandemic.”

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com



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