Spotlight: Disability, Covid-19, and Jail Incarceration


April 17, 2020 | by Jerome Palliser

Spotlight: Disability, Covid-19, and Jail Incarceration

Dear Access Living friends and allies,

Today, we want to spotlight the crisis facing incarcerated people with disabilities during the Covid-19 crisis.

Incarcerated people face stigma even within the disability community, but many people with disabilities have experienced incarceration in jails and prisons. Often, having a criminal background can create even more barriers for a person with a disability. It’s important for disability advocates to educate ourselves about this issue area. We will look specifically at the current situation local to Access Living at Cook County Jail, which is the third largest jail in the nation.

How many people are at Cook County Jail?

As of April 14, 2020, the Cook County Jail population is 7,109 with 4,348 people “behind the walls” in Cook County Jail, plus 2,761 people in Community Corrections. The vast majority of people in Cook County Jail have not been convicted of crimes, but remain subject to unsafe, unhealthy, and unsanitary conditions while they await trial or because they cannot post bond.

Currently, we do not have publicly posted demographic information about disability among those in Cook County Jail. We do know that the Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that 40% of jail inmates self-report having at least one disability. This is likely under reported. We know that many people in jails vastly under-report disability information out of fear of negative consequences of disclosure. We also know that Cook County Jail is one of the largest mental health care providers in the country.

Furthermore, we also know that people with disabilities experience poverty and housing insecurity at much higher rates than non-disabled people and that many individuals in Cook County Jail remain in custody simply because they cannot afford to post bond.

How is Covid-19 affecting people at Cook County Jail?

More than 700 people awaiting trial, serving sentences, corrections officers, and other sheriff’s employees have tested positive for Covid-19, making Cook County Jail one of the largest isolated sources of the virus in America.

People in congregate settings within Cook County Jail make up two-thirds of positive cases and all 3 deaths from Covid-19 in Cook County Jail. The full extent of Covid-19 cases is unknown because the majority of inmates have not been tested. We also do not know how many people with disabilities have tested positive for Covid-19 in Cook County Jail.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people with underlying risk factors such as serious heart disease, chronic lung disease, asthma, liver disease, chronic kidney disease, and weakened immune systems are at higher risk for Covid-19. Disabled people are more likely to have poorer overall health and are THREE TIMES more likely to have heart disease than people without disabilities. Heightened medical vulnerabilities of people in congregate settings, and the design of congregate settings, make Covid-19 much more dangerous for people in Cook County Jail than in the general public.

To make matters worse, social distancing is nearly impossible in congregate settings such as jails. And most jails, including Cook County Jail, generally struggle to maintain sanitary conditions in non-emergent times. Communal toilets and showers may not be regularly cleaned. Very limited access to personal care items such as soap, hand sanitizer, and masks prevent people in congregate settings from following public health recommendations. Moreover, a New England Journal of Medicine study concluded that the virus can remain in the air and on stainless steel surfaces for hours or days. A majority of surfaces in jails, including toilets and showers, are stainless steel.

Constitutional and civil rights protections for people with disabilities in jails:

As you know, federal laws and regulations prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. Title II of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be… denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by such an entity.”

In the wake of COVID-19’s spread across the country, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a reminder that public entities, like jails, that receive HHS funding are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities. Cook County Jail is a public entity run and operated by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Therefore, ADA protections extend into Cook County Jail and incarceration settings in general. These protections stand even during pandemics such as Covid-19.

Advocacy actions in response to Covid-19 in jails and prisons:

Since the beginning of Covid-19 spread in the U.S., advocates have been calling for action to protect against the spread in jails and prisons. On March 26, Governor Pritzker halted the new admissions to Illinois prisons. Cook County Jail has also taken remediation efforts including releasing nearly 1,000 people since March. Community advocates have also been getting some people out. We’d like to give a shout out especially to the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has been working to provide resources to pay bonds of persons who otherwise cannot afford it. As we know, many people with disabilities have very low income, making bond unaffordable.

On April 2, Uptown People’s Law Center, Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the Community Justice Civil Rights Clinic at Northwestern, Illinois Prison Project, Loevy & Loevy, and the Illinois Protection and Advocacy Agency, Equip for Equality, filed a class action lawsuit against Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), which demanded the drastic reduction of and immediate release of highly vulnerable inmates throughout the state prison system.

On April 6, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law also issued a statement urging all U.S. jurisdictions to release a majority of individuals with mental illness held in jail and to divert a majority of individuals with mental illness who have been arrested.

On Thursday April 9, Judge Matthew Kennelly denied a separate request for the release of medically vulnerable inmates in Cook County Jail. However, in his decision Justice Kennelly affirmed that the government takes on an obligation to protect the health and safety of persons in custody. In fulfilling that obligation, the government is also safeguarding “the health and safety of the community at large-from which detainees have come and to which they and the officers guarding them will return.” His order held that Cook County Jail must improve safety and sanitation measures in the jail in the wake of Covid-19.

Following the death of a third inmate in Cook County Jail on Monday April 13th, civil rights attorneys requested a Federal Court hearing to expedite the release of inmates. Yesterday, April 16, Cook County jail inmates began refusing food to get a petition for release to Judge Kennelly. Sheriff Dart has forwarded their petition to the judge.

Legal and community advocacy continues at a fast pace as Covid-19 infections escalate in the jail.

Housing newly-released people with disabilities:

While homelessness should not prohibit release from Cook County jail, Access Living is particularly concerned that persons with disabilities will not have housing and disability supports once released. We are pushing the City of Chicago and Chicago Housing Authority to open units for people trying to get out of congregate settings. Those efforts are ongoing. Community groups locals such as TASCare providing housing support for individuals who are released from Cook County Jail, but more help is needed. Check out this story about TASCs work on Cook County Jail from NPR.

Thank you for reviewing this important spotlight. Questions about disability and incarceration can be sent to Access Living’s Incarceration Policy Analyst.