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Cook County Jail To 'Single-Cell' Nearly All Detainees, As 38 Inmates Test Positive For COVID-19

CHICAGO (CBS) -- With 38 inmates at Cook County Jail who have now tested positive for COVID-19, sheriff's officials are working to "single-cell" virtually every detainee, in an effort to prevent a widespread coronavirus outbreak at the facility.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said there are currently about 5,000 inmates being held within the walls of the jail, the lowest population it's ever had. He said will allow the jail to have every inmate in a cell of his or her own within the next couple days, except for inmates who face mental health issues that require them to have a cellmate for therapeutic reasons, or to reduce the risk of suicide.

Dart also recently reopened a shuttered barracks facility used for an old boot camp program, so it can be used as a hospital for inmates who test positive for COVID-19, or as an isolation facility for others who are being quarantined.

"This is beyond complicated," Dart said. "This is a very complicated puzzle."

While Chicago police have been told to handle misdemeanor cases with a citation or summons, rather than an arrest, and Cook County State's Attorney has suspended the prosecution of non-violent, low-level drug cases in an effort to reduce crowding at the jail, Dart noted the county can't simply close the jail doors altogether.

"You can't do that. Can you imagine for two seconds looking at a police department, whether it's a large city like the city of Chicago, or a small community in suburban Cook County, and say 'Listen, anybody you arrest, we need you to keep them in your police station for the next month?' Of course you couldn't do that," Dart said.

As of Friday, 38 inmates at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19, 6 have tested negative, and 123 other tests are pending, according to Dart.

Dart, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and Dr. Connie Mennella, chair of correctional health at Cermak Health Services, on Friday outlined the county's efforts to reduce the jail population to protect detainees who don't pose a public health risk, and who are at risk of getting COVID-19 while in the jail.

"We always knew it was not if COVID would enter the jail, it was when; and we knew from the experience of our partners in New York, that when it hit the jail, it would be rapid," Mennella said.

Mennella said plans for responding to COVID-19 within the jail change every day as officials learn more about the virus, and as the larger pandemic itself evolves. She said the sheriff's office has done "an amazing job of increasing sanitation."

Everyone leaving the jail will be screened and given a temperature check to make sure they aren't exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus, officials said. The county also will make well-being calls to the homes or placement centers where inmates are expected to go to make sure no on ether has symptoms or a confirmed case of COVID-19. If an inmate being released can't be safely isolated at home, the county will work with several community organizations to find appropriate alternative housing.

"There's no question we're in a fight, and this is the fight of our lives, and our friends' lives, and our family members' lives, and our sheriff's deputies' lives, who are increasingly on the front lines of the pandemic. And right here at Cook County Jail, it's a fight for the lives of those who are innocent until proven guilty; the marginalized," Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle said her office is working with the sheriff, the Cook County State's Attorney, the Cook County Public Defender, and the Cook County Chief Judge to expedite the release of non-violent pre-trial defendants.

"Protecting our most vulnerable people at the jail while ensuring public health and safety is what's called for during this unprecedented time. We already know the outcome if we don't move with a sense of urgency," Preckwinkle said.

Earlier this week, Presiding Criminal Court Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. called for expedited bail review hearings to determine, on a case-by-case basis, if defendants being held at the jail can be released from custody as they await trial, in an attempt to reduce the jail population and slow the spread of coronavirus within the facility.

Dart estimated 20 to 30 inmates per day have been released after having a bail review hearing since that process began on Tuesday. Preckwinkle said the hearings involve people charged with non-violent crimes, and who are at greatest risk from COVID-19.

"We are talking about those who would face the worst outcomes if they were exposed to the virus; this includes the elderly, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions that leave them unable to fight the virus if they're infected. We're also talking about those who are simply in jail because they are too poor to pay the small monetary bond that has been set by a judge," Preckwinkle said.

Dart said the jail began screening people coming into the facility for symptoms of COVID-19 in January, and several weeks ago started screening people when they leave the jail.

Meantime, while Gov. JB Pritzker has issued an order temporarily suspending most prison admissions from county jails, Dart said he does not expect that means prison admissions will be halted altogether.

"We're working with them on that, but if somebody thinks that that is proper, they need to get a new job. You can't do things like that," Dart said. "People who do that clearly don't look at it as we're in this thing together. That's every man for himself, and I clearly don't think that's what anybody who's thoughtful would be doing at this time."

The sheriff noted the governor's order allows exceptions for essential transfers, for other necessary reasons like to relieve overcrowding at jails.

"We fully plan on sending people down there, we're fully expecting that they're going to take people," he said. "We'll see how that plays out, but I'm fully expecting they're going to continue to take people, because anything less than that would be reckless."

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