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To Combat High Infection Rate, Chicago Jail Releases Hundreds

TOM GJELTEN, HOST:

The Cook County Jail in Chicago is one of the country's largest, and it's in a fierce battle with COVID-19. The rate of infection in the jail is higher than most anywhere else in the country. Detainees make up nearly two-thirds of the county's 400-plus cases. With that reality, Cook County Jail is scrambling to prevent further spread of the virus inside and out. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: During this pandemic, Cook County Jail has released hundreds of people to help lower the COVID-19 threat, mainly those still awaiting trial and others serving less than a year for low-level crimes. Authorities conduct case-by-case reviews, and nonprofit bail groups operating in high gear use their money to get people out.

LEN: My name is Len (ph). I'm from Chicago.

CORLEY: He agreed to talk with us if we didn't use his full name. The Chicago Community bond fund paid his $5,000 bond. Released late last month, Len is on electronic monitoring and staying at a friend's home.

LEN: It's rough. Like I say, I'm glad to be out of there, but I feel for a lot of the guys that are sitting there, they can't get out, and just knowing that they're going to die in there.

CORLEY: About 4,500 detainees are in the jail - thousands less than years past. But Len says following CDC guidelines like social distancing and frequently washing your hands is impossible in such a dense environment. And those concerns don't stay behind bars. Anywhere from 30 to 70 people leave Cook County Jail per day. At a recent press conference, county board president Toni Preckwinkle talked about releasing more people.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TONI PRECKWINKLE: Seventy-five, 80% maybe need to be here. They're accused of violent crimes. That means that we have about a thousand people that we could work hard to try to figure out how to get back into the community safely.

CORLEY: In a federal lawsuit, two detainees argued the Cook County sheriff isn't doing enough and hasn't provided safe living conditions inside. A judge declined some of their arguments. However, he ordered the sheriff to take a number of steps, including providing adequate supplies of soap and hand sanitizer and establishing a policy for coronavirus testing by this weekend.

The head of the jail, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, says change has already been underway. He and a local hospital set up a mobile testing site for employees. Visitors are no longer allowed in the jail. In an attempt to create social distance, single cells are used when possible. Dart says the jail started screening anyone coming in for COVID-19 in January.

TOM DART: Because we knew this was not good.

CORLEY: And he since broadened the policy.

DART: We're part of this community here. We cannot just be releasing people in the community and say, good luck. No. Weeks ago, we started screening people when they leave the jail to ensure that they aren't bringing something back to the community.

CORLEY: The jail staff verifies that the person leaving jail has a place to stay, that it's COVID-19 free or there's a place, a bedroom and bathroom, for isolation. They also work with groups like TASC. The organization helps those leaving jail or prison. And TASC President Pam Rodriguez says it will connect those who need housing with providers.

PAM RODRIGUEZ: Who are able to take folks directly from the jail. They can maintain them on electronic monitoring if that's necessary, some of those providers. And this is not shelter environments.

CORLEY: But halfway houses where there can be social distancing. Meanwhile, a recent two-day emergency bailout conducted at Cook County Jail helped more than 130 people leave. Robin Steinberg, the CEO of the Bail Project, a national group that works across the country, says they plan to bail out hundreds more.

ROBIN STEINBERG: I also hope that when we get through them that we're going to be able to take a moment and ask ourselves why we had so many people in jail who haven't been convicted of a crime in the very first place.

CORLEY: A debate that's sure to come later. But for now, there's an urgent focus on getting so many that remain in Cook County Jail during this scourge of COVID-19 out of harm's way.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.