Being in Jail Has Become a ‘Death Sentence,’ Advocates Say. Detainees Are Suing to be Released.

A woman protests outside Cook County Jail in Chicago, asking for the release of detainees during the pandemic.

A woman protests outside Cook County Jail in Chicago, asking for the release of detainees during the pandemic. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh


Connecting state and local government leaders

People in jails with medical vulnerabilities and short times left on their sentence are suing for release—and if that fails, they want masks, gloves, and the space to socially distance.

In courtrooms across the country, lawyers are pushing to release more people from jail in order to allow them to quarantine at home and free up space for those inside to socially distance. The issue is particularly urgent for people with chronic medical conditions—about 40% of those held in state prisons and local jails.

Many prosecutors and public defenders worked together early in the pandemic to release thousands of people from jails—including some of the biggest facilities in the country—often those locked up awaiting trial on low-level offenses or serving time for non-violent crimes. But so far, judges have been largely resistant to allowing categorical releases of those not eligible for those earlier reprieves who are medically vulnerable, have short times left on their sentences, or are in jail awaiting trial. Instead, some judges are ordering that jails follow CDC recommendations, such as providing soap and sanitizer and making space for people to socially distance.

Even so, family members, advocates, and some correctional officers say that jails still aren’t doing enough to contain the highly contagious Covid-19 in facilities where it is difficult for inmates to keep their distance. For their part, correctional officers have noted that conditions put their lives at risk as well.

The Cook County Jail in Chicago has faced a series of lawsuits, from officers demanding hazard pay to detainees saying they need personal protective equipment. Family members of one detainee who died after contracting coronavirus at the jail have also filed a lawsuit, arguing the jail violated their constitutional rights. 

Cook County is one of the jails that has released thousands of people, going from 10,000 detainees before the pandemic to about 4,000 in April. But, still, the virus has spread widely in the sprawling facility. As of May 21, 965 inmates, correctional officers, and sheriff’s office employees have tested positive for the virus. Three employees and seven inmates have died. 

One of them was Nickolas Lee, who would have turned 43-years-old on May 5. Instead, he died of coronavirus in the early morning hours of April 12 in an intensive care unit in Chicago, six days after being transferred there from Cook County Jail. Lee was being held without bond on an armed robbery charge, according to a spokesperson for Sheriff Tom Dart.

Cassandra Greer, his wife, said Lee was a good cook who owned a car wash. While in jail, he spoke with Greer daily, updating her on the two sick people in his 50-person dormitory, who he feared might have Covid-19. He was using a t-shirt as a mask, and he wasn’t able to distance himself from those who were sick. In mid-March, Greer began calling the jail, the sheriff’s office, and the medical center on the jail campus multiple times per day in an attempt to warn officials about the two sick individuals. Someone picked up for the first time on March 28.

The next day, her husband developed his first symptom, a sore throat. Over the next few days he had a fever and chills, then lost his sense of taste and smell. As her husband grew sicker, Greer began to panic. “I was calling constantly, leaving voicemails begging for help,” she said. 

In total, Greer says she called the jail 132 times. 

“No one can understand the agony of your loved one begging you for help like that while they’re trapped. It will haunt me for the rest of my life,” she said. “If one person had helped me, I believe my husband would still be alive … The judge didn’t give him a death sentence, but that’s exactly what he got.”

Lee was the third detainee to die in the Cook County Department of Corrections, according to a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, who said that the agency has worked “round-the-clock to aggressively combat the spread of Covid-19” and prevent loss of life. When asked why no one kept Greer informed about her husband’s treatment, the spokesperson said that “it is not typical” to speak with families “unless we are aware that they have been requesting updates and information they have not yet received.”

In the lawsuit filed on April 6, the same day Lee was transferred to the hospital, Cook County detainees say the conditions they live in are an unsafe breeding ground for the spread of coronavirus. 

It is one of many suits by advocates representing people in correctional facilities across the country. For people who were already sentenced, they’re asking for the early release of those with chronic medical conditions and short amounts of time left, which would free up space for people to socially distance. If that fails, they want equipment like masks and gloves, larger rations of supplies like soap and surface sanitizer, and better cleaning policies.

People in jail say there is little air ventilation and cramped sleeping quarters. They’ve repurposed garbage bags as gloves and socks as masks. In written testimony filed with lawsuits, several described watching people die in the bunks next to them. 

Most jails have responded to the suits by saying they are doing the best they can in challenging circumstances. In the case involving Cook County, a federal judge in late April rejected releasing more inmates, but ordered more steps to ensure social distancing and testing. 

But advocates contend jail leaders across the country haven’t done enough—and what has been done has come too slowly. “The virus is spreading in a matter of days, not weeks,” said Miriam Nemeth, a senior staff attorney at the Advancement Project, a group working with plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Metro West Detention Center in Miami, the Wayne County Jail in Detroit, and the Oakland County Jail just north of Detroit. “We need to move really fast to save peoples lives in a system that is really recalcitrant to change,” she said. 

In their Miami case, a federal judge ordered the jail to follow CDC guidelines for providing personal hygiene supplies and cleaning procedures. The CDC recommends all detainees be given soap and tissues, while those with coronavirus symptoms or a confirmed diagnosis receive masks. The lawsuit also resulted in Metro West agreeing to test people for coronavirus, which they previously weren’t doing.

Alen Blanco, who has been locked up at Metro West since December, described in his testimony to the judge the ever-present dread that spikes when he gets more information about the virus. “I’ve been hearing on the news how contagious the virus is, and how fast it’s spreading in other jails like Rikers. I’m really worried about the same thing happening in Metro West,” he wrote. “Corrections isn’t telling us anything. We learned that there was an officer who tested positive for coronavirus from the news. We’re the last ones to know, we’re in the dark.”

The jail is now being evaluated by independent inspectors who determine if CDC guidelines are being followed.  Advocates say they are disappointed that the judge didn’t order categorical releases of some medically vulnerable people, including those who are pregnant and have cancer. (A representative for the Miami Jail declined to comment, saying they don’t discuss pending litigation.) 

In Oakland County, Michigan, a federal judge Thursday ordered the jail to submit a list of all medically vulnerable detainees who should be considered for release.

Jamaal Cameron, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, was booked into the Oakland County jail in January for a probation violation. He suffers from hypertension, cardiac disease, and obesity and said he wants to be released to serve his time at home via electronic monitoring. “I have no way of protecting myself from this fatal virus inside the jail … I am terrified that if I catch the coronavirus, I will not be able to fight it off,” he wrote. “I worry about dying in the hospital with no family around me.”

In other affidavits, people in the Oakland County jail say that staff members have been largely unsympathetic when they expressed their concerns. One plaintiff alleges that a deputy told her she “signed up for exposure to the coronavirus when [she] broke the law.”

Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe said that jail officials were “extremely disappointed to see the suit filed because it’s filled with lies and falsehoods.” Jail staff have distributed soap, he said, and the facility is “extremely clean.” McCabe said that the jail is already at less than half its capacity and that they “have done everything in [their] power to release inmates early.”

While advocates push for more releases, there has been pushback in communities about the ones that already have taken place. Victims rights organizations and tough-on-crime groups have argued that a pandemic shouldn’t bend the rules. In some places, governors have responded by barring the release of some detainees. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, said that batch releases would “gravely threaten public safety.”

Health experts counter that not releasing people is the bigger risk to public safety. Jails and prisons with high infection rates become vectors for the surrounding communities—in one prison 80% of the population inside tested positive. Nemeth from the Advancement Project said that “it’s important for these individuals to get out of facilities” so that they can “take the same precautions that experts recommend everyone take.”

At the very least, Nemeth and other advocates say detainees deserve supplies they can use to make themselves as safe as possible. Greer, who has protested outside the Cook County jail daily since her husband died in early April, said that she is a “realist” and never expected her husband to be released. “I understand he was an inmate. He was where society thought he should be,” she said. “But they could have done more.”

“He was trying to do better, trying to become a productive member of society,” she continued. “He still had a lot of living left to do.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Did That Drone Just Tell Us to Stay 6 Feet Apart?