Thousands of people arrested, then treated at Cook County Jail and released could put the public at risk of being infected with COVID-19, according to research released Thursday.
Peer-reviewed analysis, published online by the journal Health Affairs, shows rates of COVID-19 cases were significantly higher in zip codes with higher rates of arrests and inmates released.
Eric Reinhart, a medical student at the University of Chicago who is also pursuing a doctorate at Harvard, analyzed the records of more than 2,000 inmates released in March which he obtained through an open case request. He then linked that information to COVID-19 data by zip code from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Reinhart concluded that for every person arrested, there is a risk of infecting at least two people in the community with COVID-19, an estimate of the multiplier effect he called conservative.
“For every person you put in jail, you’re going to infect more people in the community,” Reinhart said in an interview.
In his analysis, the researcher said his findings could help explain “the striking racial disparities” that prevail in COVID cases.
“While we cannot infer causation, it is possible that as those arrested are exposed to high-risk spaces of infection in prisons and then released into their communities, the criminal justice system turns them into vectors potential disease for their families, neighbors and, ultimately, the general public, ”the study says.
But the Office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart strongly disputed the study’s findings and said officials had taken extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of the virus since the first outbreaks at the prison.
“This study is a fantasy filled with hypotheses bordering on lies,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Matthew Walberg. “The focus is on outdated information and completely ignores the fact that as a result of our interventions, prison cases have dropped sharply over the past month.”
In late April, state health officials reported a high number of African American and Latino residents testing positive for COVID-19, showing a disproportionate number of cases. While African Americans make up 14% of the state’s population, they accounted for 29% of coronavirus cases.
Cases at the prison peaked at over 300 cases at that time.
“This shows that this infection within the prison cannot be contained within the walls of the prison,” said Alexa Van Brunt, a lawyer for the MacArthur Justice Center who represents inmates in a class action lawsuit against Dart, about the study. “The prison is part of the community and the failure of the prison to protect inmates puts the community at risk.
In April, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit’s request for a court order to release or transfer elderly and medically compromised detainees during the outbreak, but approved a series of measures to reduce the spread of the virus, including by ordering the prison to house most inmates in one-cell and conduct full-scale coronavirus testing – steps the sheriff’s office says it is already taking.
Last month, Dart warned those measures may not be enough if the prison sees its usual influx of inmates during the summer months. Van Brunt said the study showed that if the sheriff couldn’t socially estrange inmates, more would have to be released. “What is clear is that this emergency is not over… and we are likely to see another epidemic,” Van Brunt said.
Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a nonprofit that issues bonds for people who can’t afford them, called the study a “wake-up call” to health risks public caused by the maintenance of order and the incarnation and declared it showed the need to keep the prison population reduced in summer.
Reinhart said his findings were “particularly relevant” given the recent mass arrests across the country. In Chicago and cities across the United States, thousands of people have gone to jail over the past week due to protests.
Sheriff’s office records show jail bookings surged after days of unrest across town, from an average of around 100 a day to 170 on Monday to 215 on Tuesday. Just under half of those brought to the prison were released the same day. If a person is not released on the same day they book, they are tested for coronavirus that day and again 14 days later. If an inmate tests positive during that window, they are kept in segregation, the sheriff’s office said.
” From [Wednesday], there were 36 COVID-19 positive inmates at the prison and 42 prison staff currently positive, ”Walberg said. “More importantly, virtually all of the new cases in recent weeks have come from newly arrested people who tested positive on admission, not those who were already in detention.”
Reinhart added that he had focused his research on the Cook County jail, the largest in the country, because of its high number of coronavirus cases. He said the Chicago prison could be a sign of a larger trend.
“What’s going on here, I have no doubt, is happening all over the country,” Reinhart said.