Federal Court Denies Sheriff’s Request to Lift Protections for People Incarcerated in Cook County Jail During COVID-19 Pandemic

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Judge denies Sheriff’s request to stay the preliminary injunction, says Sheriff “has not made a ‘strong showing’ of likelihood of success” on appeal.

On May 29, 2020, federal judge Matthew Kennelly denied Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart’s motion to stay proceedings while his office appeals the preliminary injunction in the Mays v. Dart class action lawsuit to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. On April 9th, Judge Kennelly ordered Sheriff Dart to implement policies ensuring sanitation, testing, social distancing at intake, and the distribution of personal protective equipment to incarcerated people as part of a temporary restraining order. On April 27th, Judge Kennelly extended and increased those protections to require social distancing for most people incarcerated in Cook County Jail as part of a preliminary injunction. Today, the Court emphasized that the Sheriff had not put in place reasonable measures to protect detainees before the Court ordered him to do so. Judge Kennelly also found that if the court stayed the injunction, the Sheriff could lift the court ordered measures and “again place the health of detained persons at serious risk.

COOK COUNTY SHERIFF Tom Dart

“The Sheriff has repeatedly tried to get out from under the federal court’s oversight, but the lives of thousands of people incarcerated in the Jail depend on adherence to Judge Kennelly’s orders. As the Court has made clear, the improvement of conditions inside Cook County Jail is a direct result of the federal court orders. The Sheriff’s Office cannot be trusted to protect the lives of those in his custody without judicial intervention,” said Alexa Van Brunt, Plaintiffs’ counsel at the MacArthur Justice Center.

“Thousands of lives have been needlessly put at risk by Sheriff Dart’s lack of action. The majority of people at risk are Black, reflecting the state’s longstanding disregard for Black lives currently being protested across the country. Conditions inside the jail remain dire, as there is still inadequate access to soap, and hygiene and cleaning products. Incarcerated people who have been exposed to COVID-19 are not being tested consistently, and many individuals are still unable to practice social distancing. This is unacceptable. Testimony from people inside the jail has consistently made clear that the Sheriff has failed to protect their lives and meet the requirements established by the court,” said Sharlyn Grace, Executive Director of Chicago Community Bond Fund.

“Had the Cook County Sheriff’s Office taken the actions required by the federal court, my husband might still be alive. If Sheriff Dart was more focused on doing right by the people incarcerated in his jail instead trying to blame them for being inside his jail and making excuses, he could still prevent more people from contracting this deadly virus and experiencing the same fate my husband did. I am relieved to hear the court is upholding the preliminary injunction,” said Cassandra Greer-Lee, widow of Nickolas Lee, who died of COVID-19 while in the custody of Cook County Jail.

Today’s ruling is the latest development in the Mays vs. Dart lawsuit challenging conditions inside Cook County Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of today, more than 500 people incarcerated in the jail have contracted the deadly virus and the lives of seven people incarcerated in the jail have been lost. More than 400 Sheriff’s employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and three have died after having contracted the virus. Cook County Jail is one of the nation’s largest single-site jails and has become one of the single biggest Coronavirus hotspots in the United States.

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