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Fight To Release Cook County Jail Inmates During COVID-19 Pandemic Goes To Federal Court

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The fight to release medically vulnerable inmates at the Cook County Jail amid the coronavirus pandemic is now in federal court.

Right now, the jail has a total of 4,567 inmates. But as CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey reported Monday, the COVID-19 infection rate at the jail continues to make national headlines.

"There is no such thing as social distancing, and in some places, people are squeezed together like sardines in a can," said former detainee Flonard Wrencher.

Wrencher knows the Cook County Jail after spending weeks inside for a theft charge - unable to make his $7,000 bond.

Wrencher said social distancing is impossible – and a look inside Division 2 of the jail and the jail's Residential Treatment Unit shows how crowded it gets.

And attorney Stephen Weil said the escalating number of positive cases - now 234 - supports that claim.

"The infection rate is very high," said Weil, who filed the federal lawsuit over the issue. "It bespeaks a situation that the infection is being transmitted very rapidly throughout the jail and at a rate that is a multiple of the outside world where actual social distancing is possible."

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We looked into it. The current infection rate in the Cook County Jail is one in every 20 detainees has tested positive for COVID-19, or 51 positive cases for every 1,000 inmates.

Cook County isn't far behind New York City Department of Corrections, which has 66 positive cases per 1,000 inmates. The Legal Aid Society in New York said on March 26 that the Rikers Island jail complex and the city's other jails had an infection rate seven times higher than citywide, CBS New York reported.

But at the Dallas County Jail, they have only 4 positive cases per 1,000.

In addition to requesting the release of medically vulnerable people in the Cook County Jail, the lawsuit - naming Sheriff Tom Dart - asks to transfer any other inmates who have been exposed.

"From what we know based on detainee declarations and what we're hearing inside, that's hundreds of people," said Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Clinic at Northwestern Law School.

The sheriff has said the jail has stepped up sanitation measures and opened up barracks as additional isolation housing.

As a practice, neither the Cook County Sheriff's Department nor the Cook County State's Attorney's office will comment on pending litigation.

Briefs from both sides were due on Monday, and lawyers representing the detainees will argue their case before a federal judge Tuesday via telephone.

They are asking for an immediate, emergency ruling.

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