Cook County Jail in Chicago under fire for inmate deaths since COVID pandemic

Cassandra Greer-Lee lost her husband, Nickolas Lee, to COVID-19 in April 2020 while he was incarcerated in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, the largest single-site jail in the U.S. Lee was just the third person to die of the virus in the pretrial detention facility, whose population typically hovers around 6,000 inmates, during a period when there wasn’t much information available about the virus’s spread and containment.

Since then, at least a dozen more deaths of incarcerated people and jail staff have followed, according to the jail’s records, causing human rights activists to take a closer look. Over time, frustration with jail leadership with regard to the facility’s general upkeep and care for detainees has only intensified as more inmates have died. Some of the deaths have been COVID-related and others not, leaving critics questioning the jail’s commitment to keeping inmates safe.

“My husband died of pure negligence,” Greer-Lee told Yahoo News, noting that she called the sheriff’s office and jail hospital at least 132 times when her husband fell ill and said nearly all the calls went unanswered. “He walked into the Cook County Jail a healthy 42-year-old man, and he left out in a body bag.”

The Cook County Department of Corrections
The Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

Cook County officials, however, reject the notion that they don’t do everything in their power to protect people in their facility and that the jail is any more dangerous than any other one in America. They claim Lee was taken to the hospital as soon as he told medical staff he was sick.

The sheriff's office said in a statement that it had no record of Greer-Lee’s complaints or of her calls.

“The Cook County Sheriff’s Office works very hard to protect the health and safety of individuals ordered into its custody,” Matthew Walberg, press secretary for the sheriff’s office, told Yahoo News in an email. “We operate one of the largest jails in the United States, and while every death is tragic, we have for years recorded fewer deaths in custody than comparable jails.”

Greer-Lee claims that in her experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. She says her husband told her and jail staff of symptoms as early as March 29, 2020. More than a week passed before anything was done, she said. He was finally admitted to a hospital on April 6. Six days later he was dead.

According to the jail’s data, which was shared with Yahoo News, from 2017 through 2021 there were a total of 57 deaths of incarcerated people in Cook County custody — a sum that falls just under the national jail mortality rate. This year, the jail says, there have been three deaths thus far. While resources to verify the data are not readily available, advocates believe the numbers could be even higher.

For Cook County officials, these numbers exemplify a jail under good management. For critics, the numbers are evidence of a jail in peril.

A view of the exterior of the Cook County Jail complex
A view of the exterior of the Cook County Jail complex. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Greer-Lee has seemingly been on a one-woman crusade for the last 18 months, seeking to hold the leadership at Cook County Jail responsible for what she calls carelessness and to ultimately get the current jail administration removed. Their actions, she says, led to the avoidable deaths of her husband and a slew of other incarcerated people as well as inhumane conditions including roach and rodent infestation and mold that causes sickness.

“You have people back there that have been there for nine, 10 years,” she said. “People are sick back there. They’re not getting health care. It’s rodents, and they don’t have the things that they need, like everyday essentials. I’m not saying this has to be like a Holiday Inn or a suite, but soap, sanitizing products and tissue — you shouldn’t have to beg for those things.”

Every day Greer-Lee stands outside the jail at 1 p.m. in protest, seeking accountability for the lives lost and hoping to prevent future deaths.

Cook County officials disagree.

“Every single thing was done to protect our staff, who worked tirelessly, and the individuals remanded to the custody of the jail since the beginning of the pandemic,” Walberg said. “These allegations about lack of PPE, cleaning supplies and soap are tired, false reiterations of claims made two years ago, and they are as demonstrably untrue now as they were then.”

Much of the blame for the jail’s delinquency, according to Greer-Lee, falls squarely on the shoulders of Tom Dart, the county's sheriff. Dart, who has held the position since 2006, has brought an “aggressive yet innovative approach to law enforcement,” according to his personal website, and in 2009 he was recognized by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, praised for reducing the large number of evictions across the county during the previous year.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. (Joshua Lott for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

But according to Dart’s biggest critics, that only tells a portion of who he is.

Nicholas Zaeyda, a lieutenant at the jail, told Yahoo News that at least eight officers he knows of have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic. Zaeyda, who’s currently running to replace Dart, has spent the last 23 years working at the jail and prior to that spent a decade as an interrogation specialist with the U.S. Army.

“We are doing our job with handcuffs on” due to severely limited resources available to officers to combat a COVID surge, he said, adding that favoritism within the ranks has ballooned the number of directors well into the hundreds and no one knows who is in charge.

Cook County officials shared data of the office structure, which includes eight officer roles ranging from executive director to correctional officer. According to their numbers, no role above the rank of lieutenant exceeds 12 officers. There are 100 lieutenants, 163 sergeants and more than 2,000 correctional officers.

Walberg rejected claims that staff lacked concern for the deadly virus.

“Any allegations of ‘a general lack of concern for COVID the entire time’ and ‘guards' carelessness with concern for inmates was due to a lack of leadership from the top down, starting with Dart’ are ignorant and offensive,” he said. “Those who would say this completely ignore the sacrifices the sheriff and our staff have made.”

The sheriff's office also noted that Zaeyda was suspended for 60 days late last year for insubordination.

Still, deaths in the jail have continued.

Under Dart’s leadership, just last month 24-year-old Raheem Hatter was found unresponsive on the floor of his cell with injuries to his head, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. An autopsy report from the jail’s medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

Hatter’s family was reportedly never notified of his death, but instead learned about it from an Instagram post.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart stands with inmates at the Cook County Jail
Dart with inmates at Cook County Jail as they line up to vote in the Illinois primary election in 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Just over a year ago, another detainee, Nickolas Lockett, was found dead in his cell less than a week after pleading guilty to aggravated battery of a police officer. The initial investigation found no signs of foul play or indications of suicide, and an autopsy was inconclusive. But critics believe there is more to the story.

“He finally wanted to get it together,” Lockett’s mother, Mary Lopez, told the Chicago Tribune. “And why is it when they want to change, something happens to them?”

A group of educators and researchers who were motivated by the inequities they saw across Illinois jails put together their own data on inmate deaths across the state. Using public records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, they found that from 2010 to 2021, 80 to 100 people died in custody in Illinois prisons, according to the Illinois Deaths in Custody Project. But their data for jails is incomplete, one of the authors of the report told Yahoo News, because there is no requirement from the system to share any of this information.

“We often have the cause of death that the state provides, but having to verify this information is a challenge,” said Erica Meiners, a professor of education and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Northeastern Illinois University. “People are often trying to get information from the system, and there is no requirement from the system to share any information. ... There’s no teeth.”

The goal of the project was to increase the transparency of deaths in prison, but Meiners notes that the real outrage should be focused toward the high number of Americans in the jail and prison system, particularly because confinement often takes the place of addressing the serious mental health issues that face the most marginalized groups. With more than 2 million people in jail at any given time, the U.S. far outpaces the incarceration rate of any other country in the world.

“The reason why we have people dying in prisons and jails is because we are using prisons and jails as a way to address poverty and all kinds of issues that it shouldn’t be addressing,” Meiners said. “We need to shrink our reliance on our prison system and our jail system. ... The only way to stop people from dying in jails and prisons is to make sure they don't get there in the first place.”

Inmates at the Cook County Jail
Inmates at Cook County Jail. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The most recent comprehensive report on Cook County Jail inmate mortality rates, published in 2007 in the Journal of Urban Health, found that from 1995 to 2004, 178 inmates died in the jail, an average of nearly 20 deaths a year. The vast majority of these deaths were Black men who died from sickness or homicide. These events occurred before Dart assumed his current role.

The office of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment, but advocates say she has been a steadfast Dart supporter in wanting to increase the jail’s population.

Dart currently operates a budget of $600 million as the jail’s chief officer. He was sued by civil rights attorneys at three law firms with support from the Chicago Community Bond Fund in April 2020 for not having enough COVID precautions.

“People were complaining and no one was listening,” former inmate Anthony Johnson, who contracted COVID-19 in the jail that April, told Southside Weekly, a nonprofit local newspaper based in Chicago. “It was going through the jail like wildfire [and the strategy of the sheriff’s office] was just trial and error. ... The fact is, they didn’t know what to do.”

The court issued a preliminary injunction that required personal protective equipment, soap, sanitizer and social distancing, but Dart sought to overturn these mandates. He was successful at getting the social distancing requirement lifted by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals even as jails in other states began to release thousands of nonviolent, low-level inmates.

In addition to Cook County, jails across the country saw COVID-19 unleash havoc as millions of inmates became infected with the virus amid a perfect storm of conditions. Specifically, that meant large numbers of people with limited space to social distance, along with a lack of sanitary supplies and patients dealing with mental health issues going unchecked.

“This jail churn effectively produces epidemic machines that seed outbreaks both in and beyond jails, undermining public safety for the entire country,” Dr. Eric Reinhart of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine told NPR last year.

Cook County jail detainees
Cook County Jail detainees. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

Efforts to curb the deaths inside Cook County, advocates say, did not go nearly far enough.

As early as March 2020, more than 100 organizations coordinated by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for an end to pretrial detention, signed an open letter to Cook County Jail about what was needed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Advocates say their concerns were largely ignored as inmates started dying. The bond fund petitioned for mass release of low-level, nonviolent inmates, but to no avail. Later it was reported that inmates were complaining that new arrivals were not being tested at initial processing into the jail, there was insufficient PPE for inmates and staff, and those who were symptomatic were often denied prompt treatment, if any.

The jail eventually did reduce its size in the spring of 2020 and moved detainees to single cells, which saved dozens of lives and prevented hundreds of hospitalizations, researchers at Stanford and Yale universities found in a study published early last year.

“Taken together, these measures not only have bearing for the correctional facility, but also for the community health systems that surround the jail,” the authors of the study wrote. “Our findings suggest that depopulation efforts should be a primary strategy for COVID-19 mitigation in jails.”

Dart called the study vindication for the jail’s effective precautions, while human rights advocates saw it as proof that properly managing the virus saves lives, and even more deaths could have been prevented.

Inmates reportedly called the jail’s effort to slow COVID “smoke and mirrors,” claiming they had to fend for themselves. Many refused to congregate in groups, having to disobey officers’ orders to do so. Others slept in the hallways outside their cells to keep distance, shared cleaning supplies or used T-shirts to make handmade masks.

Earlier this year, an inmate named Tommie Davis told Injustice Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization, that over New Year’s at least six men who showed COVID symptoms were isolated for six days and then were returned to the general population without being administered a COVID test. Davis described this experience in stark terms.

“It’s just terrible,” he said. “This is like being in hell. Not jail — hell.”

A sign pleading for help hangs in a window at the Cook County jail complex
With nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 having been diagnosed among its inmates and employees, Cook County Jail is the nation's largest-known source of coronavirus infections. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Cook County Jail officials told Injustice Watch that they could not confirm or deny that account, but said the jail was following guidance from local and federal health departments for testing and quarantines.

There are currently more than 5,000 inmates housed in the jail on any given day, and more than 74% of the population is Black.

Mark Clements was an inmate in early March 2020. He spent two days inside the jail for posting to Facebook that the Illinois governor “needs his butt whooped” for keeping families inside the jail. Clements told Yahoo News that in his experience, “there were no safeguards” for inmates at Cook County Jail and said guards didn’t “give a f*** if all of the people there had died.”

Clements recalls guards not wearing masks and not being concerned for the well-being of inmates within the facility.

“What I seen personally at the jail was negligence by many of the sheriffs,” he said.

As for current COVID precautions for the jail, Walberg said there is a COVID test administered to all incoming inmates, vaccines are available for staff members and detainees and PPE remains readily available.

“We continue to work closely with Cermak Health Services, the Chicago Department of Public Health, as well as state and federal public health authorities to ensure that our COVID-19 protocols are either setting or following best practices,” Walberg said. “It is a testament to our initial efforts that many of the protocols that were developed at the beginning of the pandemic are still effective and in use today.”

Greer-Lee says she doesn’t trust leadership at Cook County. Instead, she says she’s committed to sharing her frustrations about the jail in hopes of preventing more avoidable deaths.

“Inmate lives do not matter here in Chicago,” she said.


Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Cassandra Greer-Lee, Scott Olson/Getty Images