In-person family visits have resumed at the Cook County Jail for the first time in nearly three months due to the continuing trend of low COVID-19 cases at the Cook County Department of Corrections (DOC), Sheriff Thomas J. Dart announced today.
Other large prisons and jails around the country, including both the New York City and the Los Angeles County jail systems, the Illinois Department of Corrections, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons continue to suspend in-person visits.
“We have worked hard to find alternative methods to allow families to stay in touch with individuals in custody, but nothing can replace seeing loved ones face-to-face, and that only adds to the already significant stress experienced by the families of those incarcerated,” Sheriff Thomas J. Dart said. “We believe this is not only beneficial for those in our custody, but also for our staff, since it reduces anxiety among individuals in custody.”
The number of COVID-19 cases at the jail has dropped precipitously over the past two months due to the tremendous effort of both DOC staff and the staff at Cermak Health Services, a division of Cook County Health and Hospitals System, which provides all medical care for individuals in custody.
An aggressive plan centered on strategic testing protocols, comprehensive social distancing measures, and immediate isolation and quarantine of symptomatic individuals has led to the containment and steep decline in the number of new cases. Currently, there are 36 individuals in custody who are positive for the COVID-19. Importantly, from May 8 to June 7, 40 of the 48 new cases identified at the jail have come from newly arriving individuals in custody.
In light of these successes, on Friday, June 5, individuals in custody began meeting with a family member or friend in the yard of Division 1. Ten visitation areas have been set up approximately 30 feet from each other. All visitors are screened for COVID-19 using a CDC-approved screening tool, and their temperatures are taken prior to entry.
Each visitor is provided a mask and hand sanitizer, and then escorted to one of the stations for a 15- minute visit. During the visit, both the individual in custody and the visitor must wear masks and must remain at least 6 feet from each other at all times. No physical contact is allowed. Visitation hours will be held from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day including weekends, weather permitting, and DOC staff expect to facilitate approximately 100 visits daily.
While in-person visits other than with attorneys were suspended on March 15 due to the threat of COVID-19, providing the ability for individuals in custody to maintain relationships with their friends and family while they are in custody continued to be an important priority for the Sheriff’s Office. The vast majority of individuals in custody will eventually return to the community, and having positive relationships helps people re-acclimate and reconnect once they are released from custody.
When in-person visits were suspended, individuals in custody were given 30 minutes of free phone time in addition to their normal phone time, and DOC staff worked to increase access to phones in order to allow individuals in custody more time to connect with their families. DOC staff also installed video conferencing stations in every division of the jail so that individuals in custody and their loved ones could visit online.
It has, however, always been the goal of the Sheriff’s Office to reinstate in-person visits as soon as it was safe to do so.
“We are extremely proud of the work we have done to contain the spread of the virus and believe that we can once again safely invite family members to visit individuals in custody in person,” Dart said.