CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced Monday that 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.
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 detainees, 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 Dart said, in a statement. “We believe this is not only beneficial for those in our custody, but also for our staff, since it reduces anxiety among detainees.”
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 detainees, Dart said in a statement.
According to the Sheriff's Office, 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 detainees 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 detainees.
In light of these successes, on Friday, June 5, detainees 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. According to the Sheriff's Office, 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 detainee and the visitor must wear masks and must remain at least six 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.
According to the Sheriff's Office, while in-person visits other than with attorneys were suspended on March 15 due to the threat of COVID-19, providing the ability for detainees 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 detainees will eventually return to the community, and having positive relationships helps people reacclimate and reconnect once they are released from custody.
When in-person visits were suspended, detainees 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 detainees more time to connect with their families. According to the Sheriff's Office, DOC staff also installed video conferencing stations in every division of the jail so that detainees 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 detainees in person,” Dart said.