At the time of publication, Cook County Jail reports that three detainees have died from COVID-19: Jeffrey Pendleton, Leslie Pieroni, and Nicholas Lee were exposed to the novel coronavirus, along with at least 306 other detainees who have tested positive for the virus. This number is likely a low estimate; due to the conditions in the jail, detainees are exposed to the virus and are at risk of falling seriously ill. This is especially true for individuals in Division 8—the Residential Treatment Unit (RTU)—where detainees with injuries and medical conditions, making them especially vulnerable to infection, are housed.
Cases of COVID-19 in the jail continue to multiply, as reports from jail staff detail the extent to which proper sanitation and social distancing measures are ignored. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart reassured the public on April 2 that “detainees are provided ample cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and soap… In addition, staff are provided with cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and gloves… Any detainee who shows symptoms of the virus is tested by staff at Cermak Health Services,” the jail hospital run by Cook County Health.
Detainees in the RTU report otherwise. In phone interviews on April 6 and 7, six men inside a dormitory of 39 inmates described worsening health and sanitary conditions and a loss of access to their routine medical care.
The following interviews are the detainees’ observations on the jail’s response to the crisis, in their own words. We are unable to fact check the backstories provided, because we don’t know the detainees’ names. We asked all interviewees to select their own pseudonyms as they passed the phone around, to prevent retaliation.
Interviews have been edited and condensed. Extended interviews were published on SSW Radio.
Mike is thirty-six years old and was recently moved to Cook County Jail after serving seventeen years at Menard Correctional Center. He was originally sentenced to seventy-five years as a juvenile, but a judge found his sentence to be equivalent to a life sentence. He is in the jail awaiting an appeal. Mike has rheumatoid arthritis; the medication for his condition makes him more susceptible to infection.
We don’t have no cleaning supplies, we don’t see the medical doctors, it’s just horrible. It’s like, we’re not getting no treatment.You gotta be damn near dying to get medical attention.
And the nurses just come and pass our meds, and I’ve been trying to tell them I got rheumatoid arthritis, and that I’m not tryna take my meds because it lowers my immune system. And I’m at high risk for catching the virus.
We expect great from America. Whether you a convict or not, for them to treat us like this, it’s like we’re not humans at all.
When I was in Menard, Homeland Security sent me a letter… they were going to deport me. At that time, I had seventy-five years at one hundred percent. The Illinois Supreme Court found it to be a de facto life sentence for juveniles. I’m planning on getting deported back to Mexico. That’s my goal right now. Getting out and getting back over there. Most of my family are from here, Chicago. I did all my time here. This is where I grew up.
Ezell has been in Cook County Jail since 2018. He recently came out of isolation after thirty-five days in a segregation cell. He was not showing any symptoms of COVID-19. He was then moved into the RTU, where he is surrounded by sick and immunocompromised detainees.
I was just in segregation. Thirty-five days. I came out Monday, and I was not in this quarantine deck, and they put me on the quarantine deck with people that were over here sick. And I wasn’t sick at all. They needed the space for another inmate that was going to segregation. I think I would have rather stayed there. It’s a lot of people over here sick.
They need to do mandatory checks with the symptoms because some people over here are sick. I haven’t had my temperature checked in months. My celly just left last night with a temperature of 101. And they didn’t come clean or anything. We don’t even have any cleaning supplies right now as we speak.
A sergeant said, it’s not any avoiding it, we are all going to catch it and that there’s nothing she could do about it.
Michael is thirty-five years old and has spent the last three months in Cook County Jail. He has a number of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, an enlarged heart, a hernia, and a recent diagnosis of Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He has not been receiving treatment since the outbreak of COVID-19.
It’s very nasty around here. I saw that Tom Dart came on TV saying that they’re giving us an abundance of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, which they’re not. The times that they have given it to us, it was like bleach or Fabuloso. But it wasn’t enough. No masks at all. No gloves.They’re letting the garbage get so full, it’s overflowing.
On top of that, we’re not able to social distance. The phones are literally two feet from each other. The beds are three feet from each other. So you know, it’s hard to social distance. They don’t even allow us to cover our face with our towels and our shirts, which makes it even harder. They’ll tell us we can’t do that because we have to have our face visible. They’re bringing new people from other decks and mixing them in with us. Someone just died yesterday. Someone passed out and died. Three people from this tier, from last night to the morning, were hospitalized, and went to Stroger [Hospital] already.
We’re on a medical deck. Which means everybody here has some type of medical problem or some type of medical issues. I was just diagnosed with cancer. I’ve been taking chemotherapy since I’ve been here for the last couple months. I don’t have any medicine. I’m not seeing the doctors. The nurse is not coming. It’s two nurses doing the entire building. And the nurses are just not coming.
They’re just keeping us here. I still don’t know when the next time I’m even going to court to even possibly get a bond or even be let out on electronic monitoring.
Earl is fifty-one years old. He has been awaiting a new trial in Cook County Jail since February. He was at Menard Correctional Center for two years, and Lawrence Correctional Center for ten months. Earl suffers from asthma, a heart condition, and diabetes.
I’ve been experiencing a lot of fatigue, lightheadedness, shortness of breath. I get hot then I get cold. I haven’t been seen. My vitals wasn’t even taken.
You know, the officers don’t even come on this deck where we at. We pretty much monitor and watching ourselves. The officers go around with gloves and masks. We have nothing. They’re not giving us sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and stuff that they claim they doing; that’s not happening. Then they stay saying, “let’s social distance.” It’s impossible. You literally like two feet on top of each other. Two people that are asleep next to me now, they just moved in, but they moved in under medical emergency. They temperature was like above 101, and they was real sick. Once they move them, they don’t come in and you know, clean the area up or sanitize, disinfect, none of that.
Kingston is fifty-one years old and has been in Cook County Jail for the past three years. He was in prison for thirteen years before being moved to Cook County to await a new trial. He was previously in a cell, but is now in a dorm in the RTU.
Last week I was really bad. Now I’m getting better. I still got the hot flashes.
The guy that just died. I know him. We all know him. They took him from a cell environment and put him in the dorm and he died. He got the corona.
You have the directors giving these orders to do this with these people in cells, and then the doctor saying okay, well, isolate them, isolate them, isolate them. Where is you isolating them to? You isolate them in the cell with somebody else that just got the corona? Y’all causing the people to be sick. If people ain’t sick, they making them sick.
The Attorney General and [Department of Justice] need to come in here and take a good look. When DOJ was here two years ago, the guards were so scared. And guess what? The DOJ visit changed everything in a day. The DOJ need to come in and see.
Marcus is thirty-three years old and has been in Cook County Jail for seven-and-a-half years; he has yet to be convicted of a crime. His bond is $2 million, and he has been unable to request a reasonable bond. He is in the RTU with a broken jaw and requires a liquid diet. Due to the reduced medical care, he is not getting enough nutrition.
This has really been impacting me. My jaws are locked shut cuz my jaw is broken. I gotta drink liquids. They give me three, you know, like the milks you get from school? I get like half of those, three times a day. So drinking Ensure [a nutritional shake that serves as a meal replacement] is vital. But the nurses gotta bring the Ensure, and they’re not coming on the tier. I get Ensure probably every couple days. Gotta really beg for it. It seems like all the pre-existing medical things are getting pushed to the back right now.
We really fending in here for ourselves. Officers don’t come on the deck no more. Like they come to the deck for their counting, they out in the hallway the rest of the day. This is a deck where people got crutches, people got canes, people got a wheelchair. At the end of the day, we still detainees, and tensions are high. So we really fending for ourselves. If something happens, it just happens at this point.
I was so sick like three days ago. It lasted for like three-to-four days, so I feel like I probably beat the virus. I feel like all of us got it. They just took four or five people off the deck. We ask to get our temperature checked, and they ask, “You finna pass out, you alright?” They should be taking our temperature every day. My temperature’s never been checked. I told the nurse I had to get my temperature checked. She said, “You feel like you gonna fall down?” I said, “No I just got a headache, I got a real bad headache.” [The headache was so bad] that I was scared to go to sleep for a minute.
If you ain’t finna pass out, finna die, really you just stuck.
If I had $200,000, they would let me out and wouldn’t blink twice. They’d let me walk out of here today and don’t care about violence or nothing. Walk right out of here. But obviously, I can’t afford $200,000.
It’s forty people using the showers and the bathrooms. They wasn’t doing sheet change, but we made a big fuss about it and we got sheets changed this morning, but that was the first time we got it since this thing has been going on. They want the inmates to clean up too, but they’re not giving us gloves. They’re not giving us masks. We cleaning up behind forty people, and they know we infected. They know it.
Maira and Emma work at the Invisible Institute, a journalism production studio on the South Side of Chicago. Maira and Emma last wrote an op-ed about the Fraternal Order of Police.