A few days before Easter, Karl Battiste called his daughter Karla with a headache. He wasn’t feeling well and was worried about the spread of COVID-19 in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, where he was incarcerated at the time.
Battiste told his daughter that he was being held right across from two people who had tested positive for the virus, and to make matters worse, his bunk was located under a vent. He had heard about how the coronavirus could spread with this type of circulating air.
“I didn’t think anything about it because I thought my dad was going to live on,” Karla said. “That was the last time I got a phone call from Cook County Jail and from my dad.”
Battiste is one of the thousands of incarcerated people in the United States who have died from COVID-19, and one of ten people who have died while incarcerated in Cook County Jail. At the time of Battiste’s death, the jail was the site of the largest outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country, according to data collected by the New York Times.
“People were complaining and no one was listening,” said Anthony Johnson, who contracted COVID-19 in the jail in April. “It was going through the jail like wildfire [and the Sheriff’s Office’s strategy] was just trial and error… the fact is they didn’t know what to do.”
Nearly one year later, as the virus continues to spread in the jail, advocates know that more cases like Battiste’s aren’t just likely, they’re inevitable. Since May, the jail population has climbed by more than 1,300 despite activist pressure to free people to avoid another deadly outbreak. In December, there was another mass outbreak that rivaled the first one in April.
“I’m going to tear up when I start talking about Mr. Battiste,” says Margaret Domin, the public defender who had been representing him since January 2019. “We have made our position known very clearly as to the absolute failings of the Sheriff to protect the inmates and the employees.”
For years, Karl Battiste waited at the end of the school day for his granddaughter Briana to come home from elementary school. He had decorated his apartment in South Chicago with pictures of her, toys strewn around the rooms in anticipation of their daily afternoon play time.
For Battiste, who was sixty-four years old, spending time with Briana while her mom was at work was a responsibility he took very seriously.
“When I visited him in the jail, there were times he cried because he missed his granddaughter so much… He loved her so much,” Domin said. “His day revolved around when his granddaughter came home for school.”
Battiste was the youngest child of a big family, with one daughter and two grandchildren as well as five additional stepchildren and seven step-grandchildren. A Chicagoan born and raised, he attended St. Ambrose Catholic School, then graduated from DuSable High School before working in Chicago’s shipping industry. While working, he married Valencia Smith, who passed away several years before Battiste.
“He was really big on politics; he was just a smart man and strong about what he believed in. He was really into sports, especially baseball. Whenever he could see a game, he would. But for the most part, he loved enjoying time with his family and his grandkids,” said Battiste’s niece Tiffany.
“In the summertime, he loved to barbeque and have the family come over and eat and play cards. On the holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, I would always cook, and he would always get really dressed up really sharp and come over and buy all the grandkids, nieces, and nephews gifts,” TIffany continued. “He made sure that every Christmas, he would buy the young men in the family a suit. They knew that Uncle Karl was going to bring them a suit.”
“My father was the smartest man that I knew. And he was very generous—he always gave his last dime,” said Karla. “He had a hard life, but he had a good soul.”
Awaiting trial after his arrest in January 2019, Battiste was ordered to be held without bail. Domin thought this decision made no sense. “He was on disability. I mean, he walked with a cane. Come on, he’s not going to be running anywhere,” she said. “He’s an older man who never caused any problems in jail.”
So when the pandemic hit and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office announced they would be reviewing cases for release, Domin filed a bond reduction motion, hopeful that bail could be set for Battiste so he could return home.
Advocates knew that decarceration was the one and only way to prevent mass deaths in the jail. No combination of hand sanitizer, masks, and visitation restrictions would be sufficient to prevent spread of the virus in a setting where social distancing was impossible and many travelled in and out every day.
At the beginning of March, more than one hundred organizations coordinated by the Chicago Community Bond Fund signed an open letter to the county outlining what needed to be done to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the jail.
The letter recommended releasing people who were in jail solely for their inability to pay money bond, not admitting anyone a judge had deemed eligible for pretrial release, and releasing everyone eligible for electronic monitoring.
These positions were consistent with the Sheriff’s public statements on the injustice of wealth-based pretrial detention. Others recommendations in the letter had been actively opposed by the Sheriff’s Office and State’s Attorney’s Office in the past, such as increasing mobility for people on electronic monitoring, expanding access to phone and video visitation, pausing nonessential court activities, and releasing anyone over the age of fifty or who had a compromised immune system.
The last of these recommendations could have saved Battiste’s life. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), increasing his risk of death from the coronavirus.
Instead, the State’s Attorney’s Office insisted on reviewing cases individually for release, basing decisions on factors like whether the charge was classified as “violent” or “nonviolent” rather than risk factors for contracting complications from the coronavirus. The only substantial policy change the State’s Attorney’s Office made was a decision to not prosecute what it called “non-violent, low-level narcotics offenses” during the pandemic.
The Sheriff’s Office issued no response to the prayer vigils or car caravans taking place outside of the jail as hundreds inside became infected.
It’s impossible to overstate how bleak the outlook was inside the jail during these months.
Throughout the pandemic, people inside the jail testified to the conditions they observed and experienced. Dominik Baster witnessed a man with liver cirrhosis be denied sufficient food, medication, and medical attention, even when he started experiencing blood in his urine. He testified to the neglect of another man, even as he was vomiting and falling out of his bed crying for help. This man, William Sobczyk, eventually died of the virus.
Meanwhile, medical workers and jail staff told those in Baster’s dorm not to worry about masks and gloves after Sobczyk died, because they had probably already contracted the virus.
“We talked practically every day, and he was talking about how things weren’t clean in there,” said Battiste’s sister Elaine.
In a statement to South Side Weekly and Shadowproof, the Sheriff’s Office denied this, saying, “All detainees have always had access to as much soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning and disinfecting supplies they need. Extra supplies are kept in every single division, and detainees who require more can simply ask and it will be provided to them.”
But reports from inside the jail detail guards keeping hand sanitizer for themselves, cells and surrounding areas not being sanitized after those who had died from the virus were removed from them, a chronic mask shortage, ceilings collapsing from mold and rot, infestations of pests, ignored requests for cleaning materials, and beds within one foot of each other making social distancing impossible. Men were often unable to change their clothes and sheets for over a week. Advocates remember masks and cleaning supplies being confiscated.
According to Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, while responsibility for improving the conditions in the jail rested on the Sheriff’s Office’s shoulders, the State’s Attorney’s and Chief Judge’s Offices have the sole power to decarcerate.
So, a few days after the Chicago Community Bond Fund released its open letter, the Cook County Public Defender’s office, where Domin works, filed an emergency petition for mass release from the jail. Then, the bond fund filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office with Chicago civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, and the MacArthur Justice Center to improve protections for people inside the jail.
Meanwhile, advocates raced against the clock, conducting a mass bailout and freeing more than twenty people who were unable to pay for pretrial release from jail. They courtwatched, called and wrote to county and city officials, and more.
“There were actions calling for mass release that were connected to abolition and the call to ‘Free Them All.’ One of the larger caravans outside Cook County Jail was explicitly organized by a coalition of abolitionist groups,” said Sharlyn Grace, the former executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.
“But there were also calls for mass release from the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and from faith leaders, some of whom were abolitionists and some of them weren’t.”
A combination of these efforts and a slowdown in jail admissions due to reductions in cases pursued by the State’s Attorney’s Office decreased the jail population by more than 1,500.
“It absolutely showed that there were people in the jail, when they actually reviewed their cases, that could have and should have been released. And they should have been released without the presence of COVID-19,” Grace said.
But this reduction in the jail population wasn’t enough to protect everyone inside.
The jail recorded its first death on April 6. Jeffrey Pendleton was a fifty-nine-year-old man in jail because he couldn’t afford the $5,000 it cost to go home pretrial.
In response to the class-action lawsuit, the District Court of the Northern District of Illinois ordered the Sheriff to implement additional social distancing and sanitary measures at Cook County Jail. The Sheriff’s Office appealed the decision, claiming it had already put in place reasonable measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
In its recent statement, the Sheriff’s Office argued, “It would be disingenuous and a disservice to your readers to fail to report that social distancing measures were implemented unilaterally by the Sheriff’s office prior to and independent of any outside agency, including the federal Court. In fact, the Court found that virtually every single intervention was implemented by the Sheriff’s Office or in conjunction with Cermak Health Services, prior to the filing of the lawsuit or any judicial order.”
The text of the federal judge’s decision highlights the opposite, noting that many protective measures implemented by the Sheriff’s Office “were instituted only after the Court’s TRO [temporary restraining order] or preliminary injunction.” The judge found that “the Sheriff did not voluntarily take all of the coronavirus-protective measures that he cites” and denied the Sheriff’s request, stating that staying the injunction could “again place the health of detained persons at serious risk.”
Incarcerated people described the jail’s efforts to undertake testing and provide sanitation equipment as “smoke and mirrors.” Johnson remembers correctional officers actively working against implementing social distancing.
Incarcerated people resisted their conditions and fought for their own safety. They refused to congregate in group settings when ordered by the guards. Some would sleep in the hallways to avoid crowded spaces or camp out in the bathroom instead when ordered to the day room. Others tried to save and share cleaning supplies and made homemade masks from shirts, often at personal risk, since these items could be considered contraband.
“We didn’t have the option of just staying in the cell,” Johnson said. “And you know, forty guys would be shoulder to shoulder, we couldn’t practice social distancing… They weren’t giving us any sanitizer, we had no face masks, we had no rubber gloves.”
Johnson tried to follow the proper channels, filing a grievance with the Sheriff’s Office over the lack of protective equipment, social distancing, and effective testing. He never heard back or saw the issues resolved.
But only the Sheriff’s Office knows the true scope of grievances and concerns those incarcerated raised. “We have known for a while that jails are fundamentally hierarchical and they’re fundamentally unjust places in terms of the way discipline decisions are made, in the way that there’s no access to review or appeal to a higher authority,” Staudt said. “All jail discipline happens internally.”
“People inside the jail were calling and speaking to journalists, and whenever someone has a pending case, that’s done at great personal risk, also with the risk of retaliation from guards,” said Grace. “People were really, really mobilized inside in a way that I’ve certainly never encountered before.”
Johnson asked the correctional officers, who traveled regularly in and out of the jail, if they were getting tested. They told him they were not.
“So my question to them was, ‘What was protecting me from you?’ ” Johnson recounted. “Since you’re leaving and going home every day and you’re coming back here with no face mask, no face shield, no space, none of that.”
Meanwhile, “people were being secretly taken off the deck unbeknownst to us,” Johnson said, heightening the feelings of fear and a lack of transparency. By mid-April, two more men had died inside the jail.
When Johnson started experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus, he asked to get tested but was offered a thermometer instead. Soon after, he was released without a home to return to in the midst of Chicago’s stay-at-home order, but still wasn’t tested, making it impossible for Johnson to know whether he was carrying the virus from the jail into his community. He immediately got tested after release and came back positive, recovering at McCormick Place for the next two weeks. He considers himself lucky.
“When they finally got out, you know, the guys were happy, because they heard that people were dying from this and they didn’t want to die,” he said of himself and the lucky few who were released.
“There are some cases such as mine, that they should not keep people in jail unnecessarily to sit there, month after month, when the jail could release them on their own recognizance or on a furlough or house arrest or global positioning arrest.”
He believes mass decarceration efforts should continue after the end of the pandemic.
“[In jail], the clothes are not washed thoroughly. By the time it gets on the deck, the sanitizer is diluted four, five, six times. The disinfectant is watered down, and the washing of uniforms and washing of the surfaces is a breeding ground for MRSA, scabies, body lice, and any other pathogen or bacteria,” Johnson said.
Grace agrees. “COVID heightened public awareness of things that have always been true about conditions inside jails, prisons, and immigration detention—that there is inadequate access to health care, that there is crowding, lack of ability to prevent the spread of infectious disease,” she said.
The week Johnson got out of jail, Domin was preparing to present a motion for Battiste’s release in court when she looked him up in the records system. It showed that Battiste had been hospitalized.
“I call our contact at the jail, and I’m like, ‘Where is he?’ and they wouldn’t tell me,” she said. “And then I said, ‘I really need to know, because I am his lawyer.’ They finally said, ‘He’s in Stroger [Hospital], and we’ll arrange for an emergency call for you.’ ”
“When I heard his voice, I literally burst out crying,” Domin remembered. “I was just so relieved to hear his voice. And that man, he started laughing at me, he was like, ‘Oh, Ms. Domin, don’t be silly.’ ”
Battiste explained that he was getting some tests done, and Domin, in turn, assured him that she was working overtime to get him home as soon as possible.
“That was Wednesday afternoon,” she said. “Friday morning, he was dead already.”
“When my daddy passed, nobody contacted me from Cook County Jail,” Karla said. “Every time I tried to give somebody my phone number, it’s like they didn’t want to talk to me… I’m still hurt.”
The loss stings even more because Battiste was so close to freedom. “We were going to trial, we had a valid defense, we had a chance of prevailing… he would have testified superbly,” said Domin. The jury had even been chosen for Battiste’s trial.
A few weeks after Battiste’s death, COVID-19 numbers improved nationwide and in the jail. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention manuscript claimed that widespread testing and “aggressive intervention strategies” made Cook County Jail a model for how to handle the virus. Glowing profiles of Dart abounded, and the Sheriff’s Office again tried to get out from under federal oversight, arguing that the federal injunction mandating precautions be taken to avoid the spread of the virus in the jail was unnecessary because the jail was taking steps that exceeded the court’s requirements.
However, after an appeals court judge ruled that the Sheriff’s Office no longer had to comply with measures regarding social distancing, the number of people housed in congregate housing immediately started rising. Space between beds and ability to social distance started falling.
In its statement, the Sheriff’s Office denied responsibility for these changes, saying, “The population of the jail increased over the summer, and as it increased, the number of beds available to single cell detainees decreased. The Sheriff’s Office continues to single-cell as many people as possible and continues to implement social distancing practices to the fullest extent that space allows.”
But these changes had a devastating impact on those incarcerated. By late November, the jail had more active COVID-19 cases than it did at the virus’s previous peak in the jail around the time of Battiste’s death.
During this time, Marion Johnson, another person incarcerated in Cook County Jail, contracted COVID-19.
“There’s nothing you really can do there,” she explained. “They have us all take a shower together… The officers would come and cough on inmates, they just didn’t care.”
Once Johnson started experiencing coronavirus symptoms, she let the jail staff know. They wrote it down but refused to give Johnson a test.
“They put me in the isolation room, and I asked them, ‘Can I have a COVID test?’ because you know I don’t have no taste, I can’t smell, I have a headache, I have a fever. And they said, ‘no, no, no,’ ” Johnson said. “It got to a point where I was worried about my life.”
Eventually, she started having a hard time breathing and communicating. Johnson was sent to Stroger Hospital, where she tested positive for COVID-19. After Johnson was hospitalized for a week, chained to a bed and forced to go to the bathroom in a bucket, her case was dismissed and she went home.
But such a dismissal is far from the norm: case reviews and reductions in admissions have also halted, bringing the jail population back up to 5,376 as of February 9, at pre-pandemic levels, with no plans for another systematic review in sight.
To make matters worse, cases are moving more slowly through the courts than ever, forcing many to wait in jail without end. Hundreds of people have spent more time in jail than any sentence they would receive at trial would mandate.
“When the tenth person died in the jail [last month], I’m not even sure anyone recorded it. We really are in a place where we’re just not responding to this crisis at all. We’re just sort of giving up, and the jail population is rising,” says Staudt. “We are still allowing people to get it.”
The impacts of the virus in jails and prisons extend far beyond just the number of deaths from respiratory failure. “Because of the virus there are all kinds of problems that are happening in our jails and prisons, including understaffing and heightened violence and tension. There’s been double the homicides and double the suicides in prison,” said Page Dukes, a volunteer with Mourning Our Losses, a crowdsourced memorial project commemorating those who have died of COVID-19 while incarcerated.
Because of the restrictions on funerals and family gatherings, the Battistes were unable to gather in mourning. Instead, they released balloons and lit candles in Karl’s honor.
Karla, Battiste’s daughter, was able to bring Battiste’s ashes back to Tennessee. But she still doesn’t have closure. She planned to file a wrongful death suit against the Sheriff’s Office, asserting that her father’s death was completely preventable.
“They knew he was sick with COPD, and then he was right across the hall from people who had COVID-19,” she said. “Me and my dad were best friends. He always taught me about everything… He’s right here inside my house, he’s right here with me.”
Kiran Misra primarily covers criminal justice and policing in Chicago for the Weekly. She last wrote about vaccination efforts at Cook County Jail.