Content Warning: This story contains mentions of suicidal ideation and death.
On New Year’s Eve, correctional officers at the Cook County Jail removed a sick man from a level inside Division 9, one of the prison’s maximum-security facilities, according to multiple sources. men who were detained there. They weren’t surprised when prison staff quarantined them shortly after taking the man away. He had been coughing for days, they said. The surprise came when the quarantined men realized the prison health care provider was not planning to have them tested for Covid-19 immediately.
Tommie Davis was there. Davis, 59, remembers struggling with growing fear and uncertainty as the days went by and more and more people at his level looked sick. There was no way for him to know for sure who might have Covid-19, he said. At least six inmates said staff never administered tests to people on the floor during their isolation. After about six days, Davis said they were released from quarantine without testing.
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“It’s just terrible,” Davis said in a phone interview from prison. “It’s like being in hell. Not prison – hell.
Spokespersons for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and Cook County Health, the prison’s healthcare provider, said they could not confirm or deny the inmates’ account, but maintained that authorities were following local and federal health department guidelines for testing and quarantines.
Tests can be given to symptomatic people or those exposed to an infected person, and people detained at the jail can request tests — or refuse them, according to a Cook County Health spokesperson.
However, several people held at Cook County Jail said they were unaware they could request a test, and others expected to be tested after coming into close contact with a suspected person. to test positive for Covid-19.
Injustice Watch interviewed 15 people about their experiences behind bars during the pandemic as the prison weathered a record spike in Covid-19 cases; the sheriff’s office reported that at least 430 people detained on January 10 currently tested positive for Covid-19. The men, interviewed between January 11 and February 6, expressed fear of falling ill and accused the prison of inadequate testing and quarantine measures, poor social distancing and unsanitary conditions.
These problems are not new. Complaints about prison conditions and access to health care predate the pandemic. In 2020, as the virus spread behind bars, inmates filed an emergency class action lawsuit in federal court alleging that the prison’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has put thousands of lives at risk. A judge ordered the sheriff’s office to implement policies to ensure adequate testing, sanitation and personal protective equipment.
Prisons face particular challenges in dealing with outbreaks of contagious viruses such as Covid-19, according to several studies. The flow of new admissions, barriers to social distancing and unsanitary conditions can all contribute to facilitating the spread of viruses. As of Feb. 8, 10 inmates had died after contracting Covid-19 in the jail and five correctional officers had died from the virus, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
Most of those locked up in the Cook County Jail are charged with criminal cases awaiting trial. They are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law. Lawyers have urged court officials to empty the jail as much as possible since Covid-19 began spreading behind bars. As of February 8, more than 6,000 people were detained at the prison. This represents an increase of about 50% since May 2020, when the prison population declined after prosecutors and judges worked to reduce the number of people detained at the start of the pandemic. Approximately 76% of the prison population is black and 17% of the prison population is Latin.
The prison cannot control who is detained or released. But people are tested for Covid-19 when they are admitted to jail, according to a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, praised the prison for its response to the pandemic.
“After the initial wave, for example, they put in place strong practices to segregate and quarantine people entering prison, knowing that many arrive already infected with COVID,” she said in a statement to Injustice Watch.
For the people inside, however, the actions of the prison are not enough to make them feel safe.
Davis and others at his level, 3E, said quarantine procedures after the patient was removed on New Year’s Eve were insufficient. Those in quarantine are not allowed to mingle with other parts of the prison population or leave for in-person court. But they can still interact with other people on their level for hours at a time, which is a policy that several people on 3E say scares them away.
The level is known as the “Old Man’s Bridge” among inmates. According to the men Injustice Watch spoke to, many of those detained there are in their late 50s or older, a population at greater risk of suffering serious health complications or dying from Covid-19. Their age group can also hangar the virus for longer periods, said epidemiologist Monik Jiménez, who researches Covid-19 in jails and prisons. Viral shedding occurs when a person releases viral particles into an environment, either through symptoms such as coughing or while talking, eating, or exhaling.
A man on the landing, Jesus G. Silva, said he was concerned about the lack of social distancing at the prison. He recalls his anxiety growing during quarantine and said he feared for his life.
Silva, 37, said he heard coughs echoing around his floor during the day – and slept within feet of his cellmate at night.
“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to reach my children,” Silva said. “I have two boys and a girl, and I talk to them almost every day. They tell me to be safe, and I tell them to be safe. But am I really safe?
In correctional facilities, incarcerated people who have had close contact with someone suspected or confirmed to have Covid-19 should only be quarantined as a group if there is no alternative, especially if they are older adults or have health problems, depending on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The facility should monitor people quarantined in groups for symptoms and “consider” testing people every three to seven days until no new cases in the group are found for two weeks, according to CDC guidelines.
But men quarantined at Level 3E say that didn’t happen. And while prison health care officials argue that quarantines generally last until no new cases are detected in a unit, or until there is no longer evidence of sustained transmission of Covid-19, several people on Level 3E recall seeing other inmates who appeared symptomatic during quarantine and a few days after, some being so ill they remained in their cells.
Jiménez said the prison should carry out routine mass testing of staff and inmates, rather than relying on sick people to talk about symptoms. Otherwise, cases slip through the cracks, she said.
“If we are willing to regularly test our students, those incarcerated should have the same value placed on their health and their lives,” she said.
Some people in prison said they were afraid to report they were sick and be accused of initiating a quarantine. Others, like Kelsey Jackson, said their requests for health services were often denied or delayed when seeking medical help. Jackson, 43, said he had headaches and a cough around New Years and filed what is called a medical form to alert staff. However, he said, he was not tested or isolated from others during the level’s quarantine.
Some inmates who speak limited English said it was difficult to get help because of the language barrier. Jose Zavala said he believed his complaints and medical requests were being ignored by the staff. After about 14 months in prison awaiting trial, he said the lack of medical care and poor conditions inside the prison contributed to suicidal thoughts.
“I told my family that I couldn’t do this anymore,” he said in Spanish.
People living behind bars during the pandemic aren’t just worried about the prison’s handling of Covid-19 or getting sick. Many are also worried about how their loved ones outside prison walls are weathering the pandemic without them, and some male prisoners are mourning for people they have lost while awaiting trial.
Davis is one of more than 2,000 people who have spent more than a year in jail amid a backlog that has delayed their cases. He was already detained when the pandemic started, and he is still awaiting a judgment on his case. Last June, Davis’ mother died. He must have given his eulogy over the phone.
“It will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’m starting to shake just thinking about it. It wasn’t right.”
Being detained took away his chance to say goodbye to his best friend, Davis said. After around 31 months in prison, he said he wanted out – not just because of Covid-19 but because he has to step in for his family now that his mother is gone.
This is a promise he made in his eulogy: “Your flesh may rest in peace,” he said. “I got it from here.” For now, however, he is still sending support over the phone.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a helpline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak to a certified auditor, call 1-800-273-8255.