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"We're at war with no weapons": Coronavirus cases surge inside Chicago's Cook County Jail

Staff members and former inmates who were inside Chicago's Cook County Jail during the coronavirus pandemic say they aren't surprised cases are now surging there. With 291 confirmed cases, the jail is experiencing one of the largest outbreaks inside a U.S. correctional facility.

CBS News spoke to three staffers and two former inmates on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. They said despite growing concerns about coronavirus in January, staff wore no protective gear while working with detainees until late March. The employees said they've since only been supplied with a single pair of gloves for the entire day.

"If you take the gloves off because you have to go to the restroom or do something else, it's not like you have more gloves to keep changing out," one employee said.

There are 221 detainees and 70 staffers who have tested positive for the virus as of Saturday, according to the Cook County Sheriff's Office. The facility, which typically houses more than 5,000 inmates, is one of the largest single-site jails in the country. The first corrections officer tested positive on March 22. The following day, the first two detainees were confirmed sick.

The former inmates spent over a year inside Cook County Jail before being bonded out by the Chicago Community Bond Fund last month. They said the aid could have been the difference between life and death.

"Inside, everybody knows it's going to be one of two things: you're either going to die or you're going to get out," one said about experiencing the pandemic from behind bars. "That's the conversation every day. We're going to die."

There have been at least seven inmate deaths at federally run prisons in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Prisons. More than 260,000 people have contracted the virus across the country, and over 7,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The employees and former inmates said tensions ran high after officials announced the first confirmed cases inside the facility.

The former inmates and one staffer said more fights broke out after inmates were encouraged to report if they saw anyone exhibiting any flu-like symptoms. Both inmates said they often became upset because staffers weren't taking precautions like wearing gloves.

The employees, who interact closely with inmates on a daily basis, are now going in once a week and working from home the other four. They said that in addition to the daily pair of gloves, they're being told to bring their own supplies of personal protective equipment to work because the department is not able to supply them.

"We have fear of taking this virus home to our families and they're giving us almost nothing to protect ourselves," an employee said.

In a statement to CBS News, the sheriff's department said hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and gloves are being provided to staff. Adding that, "masks are readily available, and staff are instructed on how to and when to use them in accordance with CDC guidelines."

"I believe that the sheriff's department may have the gear but it's not being administered or given out to everyone equally," added Erik Roberts, an education facilitator at Cook County Jail and union steward for SEIU Local 73. "We need to account for the whole picture, we need to do as much as we can to make sure everybody is safe."

Roberts fields concerns from union members daily and said the coronavirus has added extra urgency to their calls for transparency. The three employees said they believe the lack of proper equipment is responsible for the rapid rise in cases.

The former inmates told CBS News the facility urged them to wash their hands more often but did not supply more soap in their weekly ration to do so. "We didn't know who would wake up with it in the morning," one former inmate added. "It was like we're at war with no weapons. We have no defense for ourselves."

A former inmate said one additional bar was provided to a communal bathroom, saying it was "real mini, like the type you'd get at a hotel." An employee said each inmate is now given a three-pack of travel-size soap every week after a soap-sock beating occurred last month. The employee said the distributed amount makes it "impossible" for inmates to practice good hygiene.

"I know soap is used to kill the virus, but when 48 people are using the same bar at a time like this, that should raise some eyebrows," the former inmate added.

In a statement, the sheriff's office said allegations that inmates and staff are not receiving ample cleaning supplies or soap are false. It said alcohol-based hand sanitizer, normally considered contraband, has been declassified and that inmates can ask a staff member for more soap if they run out.

The sheriff's office has built a 500-bed quarantine facility and said that cleaning protocols have been ramped up in "all parts of the jail, especially high touch areas." The office said it's "ensuring that all staff and detainees have access to the supplies they need to help protect their health."

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This March 25, 2020, image shows inside a building that officials were preparing to house infected inmates away from the Cook County Jail. Cook County Sheriff's Office/Facebook

Advocates warn that disease spreads quickly in jails and prisons since confined spaces and often inadequate healthcare makes it nearly impossible for inmates to abide by social distancing recommendations and sanitary precautions.

The sheriff's office said there's been an "effort to move everyone in double cells to single cells to provide more social distancing." The two former inmates said they were still sharing cells with another person before they were released.

The county has taken steps to reduce its jail population. Last month, the Cook County State's Attorney's office said it would stop prosecuting low level, non-violent narcotics offenses to decrease the number of bookings. The sheriff's office has said all detainees that do arrive are being screened for flu-like symptoms.

An expedited court process has also been instituted to get more bond reviews in front of judges. The Cook County State's Attorney's Office has said they've reviewed 1,500 cases and recommended the release of hundreds. The state's attorney's office could not confirm the exact number of inmates who have so far benefited. With 4,711 inmates, the sheriff's office said the jail now has its lowest population level ever.

Officials across the country are taking similar precautions. A judge in Harris County, Texas said about 1,000 inmates were going to be granted early release. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at least 650 inmates had been released from Rikers Island.

The employees in Chicago said while efforts may have been implemented for inmates, staff safety has fallen to the wayside. They expressed frustration at what they called inadequate communication from county officials. According to a copy of a daily staff update obtained by CBS News, the sheriff's office has been providing employees information on the number of tests, cases and efforts to move infected detainees.

The employees argue a lack of specifics for each department is putting their lives at risk. Two allege someone in their department is sick, but they haven't been directly notified to self-quarantine by management. All believed privacy laws prevented them access to the information.

The sheriff's office said in its statement that it's "doing all it can to ensure that staff and detainees who may have come into close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 are informed that they may have been exposed." The office said all employees are encouraged to self-monitor for symptoms.

"We don't expect our department to violate HIPAA or disclose a name, but I do think it's important we be notified if we possibly interacted with someone who has it," one employee added. "The sheriff's department needs to support us more as employees. We're risking our lives coming in on a daily basis."

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