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Study links Cook County Jail to COVID-19 outbreaks in Black communities

By Keaundrey Clark

A new study published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” has shown a link between short stays in Cook County Jail and the racially disproportionate spread of COVID-19 in Chicago during the early months of the pandemic.

The study shows that for every one person released in March 2020, about five additional cases of COVID appeared in the inmate’s ZIP code of residence. This is a number that, when taken alongside Cook County Jail’s racial disparities, would explain why the city’s Black neighborhoods were hit so hard early in the outbreak.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about why COVID-19 has affected communities of color so disproportionately. People are talking about housing, economic conditions, labor conditions; these are all really important factors,” the study’s co-author Eric Reinhart, a lead health and justice system researcher at the World Bank, said.

“But racial health disparities cannot be separated from how our system of mass incarceration incubates and distributes disease and harm to communities.”

The mass release took place after a federal lawsuit filed in April of last year by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, and the MacArthur Justice Center called for medically vulnerable people to be let out.

“Thousands of people are caged in Cook County Jail, many simply because they can’t afford to pay bond. The living conditions in Cook County Jail are not suitable for human beings; people are living like animals.

“There is no such thing as social distancing, because people are squeezed together like sardines in a can. People’s lives are in jeopardy inside the jail. Our elected officials are not doing enough.

If we don’t do something, people are going to die,” said Flonard Wrencher, an advocate with the Chicago Community Bond Fund who was previously incarcerated in Cook County Jail.

For their part, Tom Dart and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office denies any accusations put forth in the study, with a strongly worded written statement.

“Mr. Reinhart’s baseless and irresponsible conclusion stands in stark contrast to the independent findings of the CDC, and Yale and Stanford universities who concluded that the practices implemented at the Cook County Jail to contain the Global pandemic collectively served as a model for other carceral facilities to follow and prevented thousands of cases and saved dozens of lives,” the statement said.

“[During] the last three months virtually all our COVID-19 cases came from outside, not the other way around.”

Reinhart denies making any accusations of Dart or the staff or the jail, but instead hopes that the study will put a renewed focus on the issues around mass incarceration, which have been once again highlighted by the pandemic.

“This is not about Sheriff (Tom) Dart and the Cook County Jail. This is not really even about COVID-19,” Reinhart said. “What our study shows, what COVID-19 in general is showing, is that as a society — nationally — we have established a system of mass incarceration that severely undermines national public health, biosecurity and public safety.”

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