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Sheriff defends attempts to curb coronavirus at Cook County Jail as judge mulls lawsuit seeking releases

Wednesday, April 08, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Jason Meisner and Megan Crepeau

Lawyers for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Tuesday vigorously defended his handling of a coronavirus outbreak at the county jail, telling a federal judge that a lawsuit seeking the immediate release of medically vulnerable inmates was without merit.

During two hours of arguments held by telephone before U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly, Dart’s legal team said the sheriff was ahead of the curve in recognizing the threat of the virus in the jail’s cramped conditions.

Over the past several weeks, the sheriff has worked with prosecutors and defense attorneys in their attempts to release hundreds of at-risk detainees, established treatment protocols, implemented preventive measures and handed out personal protective equipment to staff, according to his lawyers.

Attorney Robert Shannon acknowledged that the situation at the sprawling jail facility is changing on a daily basis and has left many sheriff’s office employees struggling and exhausted. The last thing they need to be doing is fighting a lawsuit in court, Shannon said.

“We need to focus on (the coronavirus response)” Shannon said.

The lawsuit filed Friday by the Loevy and Loevy law firm and the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University alleged Dart has failed to stop a “rapidly unfolding public health disaster” at the jail, which so far has seen 234 detainees and 78 staff members test positive for the virus — including one inmate who died earlier this week.

The suit seeks class-action status for all of the jail’s remaining 4,500 detainees and also a temporary restraining order that would result in the immediate release of any prisoner whose constitutional rights are being violated by their continued detention amid the coronavirus crisis.

Dart said in his response that he has no legal authority to release detainees as the lawsuit seeks.

While Kennelly did not rule on Tuesday, he did indicate that the plaintiffs had yet to clear an important hurdle for a temporary restraining order: proving that there was no remedy for detainees to argue at the state court level that they should be released due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“You’ve got some convincing to do on the likelihood of success problem,” Kennelly said.

The judge ordered both sides to file additional briefs answering questions he posed at the hearing. A ruling could come as soon as Wednesday.

The hearing came a day after the announcement of the first death of a jail inmate from what appears to be COVID-19-related causes.

According to the sheriff’s office, Jeffery Pendleton, 59, was booked into the jail in July 2018 to await trial on charges including armed habitual criminal and armed violence. He was taken to Stroger Hospital on March 30 after testing positive for COVID-19, and he died Sunday night.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli and other county authorities have pushed hard in recent weeks to reduce the jail population amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, the jail population has plunged to its lowest level in memory. Those who are allowed early release are being screened for symptoms as they exit, authorities have said.

Outside the jail’s campus on Chicago’s Southwest Side Tuesday morning, dozens of cars drove in slow circles for more than an hour in a “solidarity caravan” to call for the mass release of county detainees.

“Release them b4 corona takes them,” read a sign attached to the side of one car. “Detention = Death,” said another. “Infection is murder.”

Longtime activist Mark Clements shouted from his passenger seat a slogan with a Biblical bent: “Let my people go!”

The virus calls for extraordinary measures, said the Rev. Jason Lydon, who stood in the parkway on California Boulevard and raised his fist in solidarity with the passing cars.

“We’re in an unprecedented crisis and we need unprecedented actions,” he shouted as car horns blazed nearby. “Emptying the jails is a beautiful part of that.”

The protest was designed to keep all its participants in cars “socially distant” from each other, as is recommended to stop the virus’ spread.

Meanwhile, during arguments in Kennelly’s largely empty courtroom, attorney Locke Bowman, who represents the detainees, said that while many of the sheriff’s policies have been in line with directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s clear that implementation of those policies has been problematic.

Bowman said he would like Kennelly to order a public health officials to tour the jail and observe conditions on the ground and make recommendations “to make things better.”

There also should be an immediate assessment of all detainees who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to medical conditions or age so their release can be immediately secured, Bowman said.



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