Siegler and Zunkel on Releasing People from Chicago's Federal Jail to Avoid a COVID-19 Hot Spot

Commentary: Don’t let Chicago’s federal jail become the next coronavirus hot spot

The first COVID-19 death, April 19, of a Cook County Jail correctional officer should be a call to action for federal judges in Chicago. As the novel coronavirus continues its dangerous and lethal spread through Cook County Jail, judges must release more people from the federal jail, known as the Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC. Otherwise, the MCC also will become downright disastrous. 

The number of COVID-19 cases at the Chicago MCC has skyrocketed since April 13 when it was zero to more than 40 as of Friday, with at least 20 staff and 21 inmates having now tested positive, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Those numbers rise daily and show no sign of leveling off. As U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly said in a recent opinion: “The Court … assumes that the measures undertaken by the MCC to prevent or stop the spread of coronavirus disease are, and have proven to be, inadequate to prevent spread of the disease within the institution.” 

Unfortunately, Attorney General William Barr is taking a draconian and misguided approach to pretrial jails like the MCC. Jails are different from prisons — the people caged in jail are awaiting trial and haven’t been found guilty of anything. Yet for some inexplicable reason, Barr, the nation’s chief federal prosecutor, is treating people in jails more harshly. Barr has recommended releasing people from federal prisons, recognizing that “time is of the essence.” But he has directed his federal prosecutors — including those in Chicago — to largely oppose releasing people from federal jails. He claims that keeping presumptively innocent people in jail is the only way to advance “the safety of the community,” a contention that flies in the face of the government’s own data.

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