Support for the public defender’s emergency petition for release of detainees

Note:  this op-ed was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 26.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship, before finally releasing its passengers, had become a “floating incubator”of COVID-19, with more than 700 confirmed cases. Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security stated in an email to Business Insider that “the quarantine was not justified, and violated the individual rights of the passengers while allowing the virus to literally pick them off one-by-one.”

The situation in jails and prisons across Illinois could result in a similar public health disaster. As of this writing, there are 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cook County Jail: 17 from the detained population and four among employees.  There appears to be no testing in Illinois prisons or downstate jails. Statistical modeling suggests that the number of undetected cases is likely to be much higher than confirmed cases. We are experiencing a global public health crisis. Governor Pritzker has mandated social distancing and issued a “shelter in place” mandate to “flatten the curve.” Jails and prisons leave no space for self-quarantine and isolation from infected individuals. Close contact between detainees and staff unavoidably increases the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission.

The potential for COVID-19 transmission in Cook County Jail and Illinois prisons potentially poses a grave threat to detainees, officers, other facility workers and, through them, the public health of the larger community.

Furthermore, incarcerated individuals are disproportionately affected by chronic health conditions, making them more likely to suffer complications from COVID-19.  Their needs could overrun the limited capacity of Cermak Health Services and other healthcare providers serving Cook County Jail and downstate facilities.  For these reasons, we strongly support the emergency petition to release detainees.

The CDC’s interim guidance on managing COVID-19 in correctional and detention facilities identifies a set of unique challenges for correctional settings, which differ by type and size of facility and by level of currently available capacity.  The National Commission on Correctional Health Care acknowledges that small facilities might opt for a limited degree of isolation, with some degree of precaution, such as a “room with a closed door rather than an open cell,” being “better than none.” Given these limitations and challenges, there is an urgent need to triage for release of detainees at low risk for violent crimes but at high risk for COVID-19.

Currently, 5,000 people are detained in Cook County Jail and about 40,000 are detained in Illinois prisons.  About 20 percent of state prison populations are older adults, who are at higher risk for complications. These men and women will eventually return to their communities. If we do not move quickly to release them, we will increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission in our communities.

We must act quickly. We urge officials to promptly release detainees who can be released safely, balancing the risk of possible new crimes against the likelihood that jails and prisons will become incubators for COVID-19.

The health of a vulnerable population is at risk, and we have limited time to implement this emergency policy action. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to prevent detainees of Cook County Jail and Illinois prisons from a similar fate as those on the Diamond Princess. We strongly support the emergency petition to release detainees and urge officials to act on it immediately.

Signatures of support

School of Public Health

  • Dr. Ronald Hershow, professor of epidemiology
  • Jyotsna S. Jagai, MS, MPH, PhD, Research Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health
  • Sage Kim, PhD, associate professor of health policy and administration
  • Yamilé Molina, PhD, assistant professor of community health sciences
  • Caryn E. Peterson, PhD, research assistant professor of epidemiology
  • Ariel Trocino, MPH in Health Policy and Administration ’17
  • Karriem Watson, DHS, MPH in Community Health Sciences ’10, research assistant professor and associate executive director, Mile Square Health Centers

UIC College of Nursing

  • Wendy Bostwick, PhD, associate professor
  • Geraldine Gorman, RN, PhD, clinical associate professor
  • Phoenix Matthews, PhD, professor
  • Rebecca Singer, DNP, RN, clinical assistant professor

Department of Criminology, Law and Justice

  • Alana Gunn, PhD, assistant professor
  • Liat Ben-Moshe, PhD, assistant professor
  • Jessica Bird, PhD, assistant professor
  • Susila Gurusami, PhD,  assistant professor
  • Peter Ibarra, PhD, associate professor
  • Lisa Frohmann, PhD, associate professor
  • Rahim Kurwa, PhD, assistant professor
  • Ashley Muchow, PhD, assistant professor
  • David Stovall, PhD, professor
  • Sarah Ullman, PhD, professor

Jane Addams College of Social Work

  • Kalen Flynn, PhD, assistant professor
  • Aaron Gottlieb, PhD, assistant professor
  • Henrika McCoy, PhD, associate professor, public voices fellow with the OpEd Project
  • Branden McLeod, PhD, assistant professor

UIC College of Medicine

  • Dr. Gelila Goba, MPH, FACOG, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology

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