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The Sheriff and His Jail

Jails are key drivers of COVID spread. My experience with Chicago’s top jailer shows how politics can often stand in the way of public health.


As the Omicron variant sends the United States into a new pandemic cycle, congregate settings like nursing homes, jails and prisons, and tightly-packed factory floors are again bearing the brunt of federal and state governments’ refusals to implement effective preventative policies. For the people locked inside Cook County Jail in Illinois, the reality of renewed epidemic outbreaks arrived several weeks earlier than at most jails and prisons across the United States. For the last two months, Chicago’s infamous jail has been suffering yet another predictable and preventable surge in Covid-19 cases — what is now its worst outbreak on record. Earlier this month, more than 850 people there had been reported infected with the coronavirus at a time when the jail’s population had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

For many on the inside, this is not their first rodeo. Indeed, repeated outbreaks at this facility provide an ideal case study for making clear the ongoing public health harms caused by the American misuse of local jails to manage poverty, homelessness, addiction, and a myriad other social problems. Additionally, the response of the official in charge of Cook County Jail, Sheriff Tom Dart, usefully illustrates the way that many county sheriffs’ investments in their own personal politicking are partly to blame for the perpetuation of jail-attributable Covid-19 spread across the country.

In March and April of 2020, Dart’s jail received global media attention, as one the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the world grew between its walls. Journalists described the jail as a “petri dish” perfectly suited for spreading infection among both incarcerated people and their guards. Soon thereafter, my research with Daniel Chen showed what public health experts had foreseen: Dangerous conditions at the jail didn’t just harm people living inside. These conditions also sickened and killed people throughout Illinois. How? By turning the jail — which features rapid turnover as it incarcerates people on a spectrum of charges before soon releasing them back to their communities — into an epidemic engine that swiftly multiplies and spreads infection.

In the months that have followed, this process has repeated itself at jails nationwide, and our research has shown that this has led to millions of preventable COVID-19 cases and many thousands of deaths. As Omicron now hits the repeat button, the same song of needless death and illness has begun playing yet again.

What role do sheriffs play in this? As elected politicians who typically have backgrounds inside law enforcement agencies, which can be a requirement to run for the position, sheriffs control about 85% of the approximately 3,100 jails in the U.S. Like other politicians, sheriffs are keenly attuned to the electoral hazards of negative press and spend a considerable amount of energy and resources on their public relations strategies. On top of this, there exists a system of perverse incentives to play fear-mongering crime politics and to obscure unsafe conditions inside jails — a reality that is exacerbated by the outsized powers given to sheriffs, with little to no oversight or accountability. This helps sustain a conjunction of crude politicking and abusive jail administration that has proven deadly for both incarcerated people and disastrous for U.S. public safety and — during a pandemic — global biosecurity.

My experiences as a public health researcher in Chicago reflect some of the priorities and tactics commonly at play in sheriffs’ relationships to scientific evidence and media narratives. It’s also worth noting that what I describe below in Chicago — where we have a personally ambitious, media-eager sheriff who presents himself as a progressive reformist relative to his right-wing peers elsewhere in the U.S. — is often far worse in other jurisdictions.

Last September, days before he announced his campaign for a fifth term as Cook County sheriff, Dart published an opinion essay in which he celebrated his “successful” management of COVID-19 while maligning me and fellow researchers. What provoked him? In the pages of the Chicago Tribune, we had publicly addressed something with which Dart himself is familiar: Crowded conditions in jails and prisons are putting staff at risk, causing epidemic outbreaks, and fueling ongoing virus spread throughout Illinois. We called on Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker to release thousands of unnecessarily incarcerated people. In response, Dart — to whom we didn’t directly refer in our essay— accused us of spreading “misinformation and half-truths.”

Dart’s political instincts are not difficult to discern. After overseeing a public health disaster at Cook County Jail and getting caught flat-footed, he has been seeking for over a year to pat himself on the back for actions he did or didn’t takeincluding steps only taken after a lawsuit resulted in a court order that forced Dart to implement certain measures to mitigate the deadly spread of COVID-19. Because of the optics of this reality, Dart has been deploying a classic strategy from the incumbent politician’s playbook: after a preventable crisis erupts under a public official’s watch, the official then seeks to turn his or her response to contain the damage into a political advantage, by advertising it as evidence of successful governance.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered aggressive opposition to my research on decarceration from Dart and his media relations team. In June 2020, his spokesman called me to angrily insist that I “make this story disappear” after Daniel Chen and I published a peer-reviewed study in Health Affairs that tied nearly 1 in 6 of all COVID-19 cases in Illinois to spread from Cook County Jail. These findings, I should note, were later confirmed, after we secured access to more comprehensive data, in another peer-reviewed study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. My efforts to explain the study to Dart’s office and why it could be an asset for his publicly stated reformist goals, rather than a political liability, were rebuffed. So, too, were my offers to bring to Chicago my Harvard colleagues — global infectious disease specialists who have worked for decades to control tuberculosis in prisons internationally — to help address flawed protocols at Cook County Jail.

I declined to bury my own research. In response, the sheriff’s office continued to publicly insist, without any supporting details or arguments, that our research was inaccurate. Dart’s office then, according to an email from his communications staff shared with me by a journalist, appeared to have coordinated with others in the county and city health departments to send scientifically hollow attempts to petition the journal to retract the study — by simply repeating in mangled terms our study’s own acknowledged methodological limitations, as if they had not already been expressly stated in the study itself. (The journal, after taking these officials’ objections into consideration, did not issue a retraction, correction, or public acknowledgment in response to their requests.)

This is just one among a number of possible examples that illustrate how Sheriff Dart and people in his orbit have tried to quash whatever may be perceived as unflattering to his public image, regardless of its implications for public health and safety. Time and again, when our peer-reviewed research has not been in line with that image, he or his team have resorted to calling it “baseless and irresponsible,” “fantasy filled with assumptions bordering on lies,” and “misinformation.”

(Inquest reached out to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to seek comment about incidents described in this essay, including the requests for a retraction both to the author and the journal. The office responded with a lengthy statement that didn’t directly dispute these incidents, but instead noted that the office “strenuously objected” to the author’s study and conclusions because allowing them “to go unrebutted would have been irresponsible.” With its statement, the office included a letter from a Chicago Department of Public Health doctor, which the author had previously shared with Inquest, purporting to rebut the findings in the author’s June 2020 study and requesting that the study “be taken down until it can be more thoroughly assessed”; the sheriff’s office also shared copies of two separate studies that the office said showed the response by the Cook County Jail “reduced the spread of COVID and saved lives.”)

Unfortunately, Dart is unexceptional among U.S. sheriffs — public servants with enormous unchecked power who, like all politicians and government officials, should be subjected to constant scrutiny and demands to do better. As COVID-19 now again ravages not just his jail but also scores of other jails around the country, Dart’s media tactics and resistance to public health evidence show us the consequences of prioritizing sheriff politics over public safety. This is the reason my interactions with Dart’s office now seem worth making public — something I had previously declined to do.

Sheriffs around the country routinely obstruct vital public health data collection and basic monitoring of conditions inside jails — they’d rather keep up the illusion that what happens inside the jail system is no one else’s business but their own. This obfuscation is consistent with the broader problem of law enforcement inventing its own truth by crafting false or misleading media narratives, typically to stoke crime paranoia and promote the debunked claim that only more police, jails, and prisons can save us. Regardless of sheriffs’ interests, however, our job as researchers is not to make elected officials look good, let alone to advance their political fortunes. Our job is to help them act in the public’s interest. And evidence makes very clear that protecting the American public requires mass decarceration.

Elected public servants have a responsibility to release hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people whose continued confinement serves no plausible public interest. America’s self-destructive system of mass incarceration functions as a taxpayer-funded epidemic engine that is incompatible with public health and safety. It will continue to put everyone everywhere in harm’s way for as long as we allow it to remain in place, including well after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

America’s self-destructive system of mass incarceration functions as a taxpayer-funded epidemic engine that is incompatible with public health and safety. It will continue to put everyone everywhere in harm’s way for as long as we allow it to remain in place, including well after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

If sheriffs and others in law enforcement are genuinely interested in fulfilling their duty to protect public safety, they should join forces with public health experts who have been calling on President Biden and state governors to use their clemency powers to enact safe, sensible decarceration as an urgent matter of basic pandemic control. Furthermore, in conjunction with prosecutors and judges, sheriffs should be leading efforts to release unnecessarily detained people and to push back on decisions to jail anyone who does not pose a clear threat to others. That nearly all sheriffs, no matter their party affiliation, are instead opposing safe decarceration policies reflects that their priorities lie elsewhere, not with the public they claim to serve.

As spiraling abuse at jails from Houston and Chicago to Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Baton Rouge makes clear, we need a new kind of sheriff in town — and a fundamental overhaul of the ineffective and dangerous jail systems they operate. Unfortunately, from where we sit in the middle of an ongoing emergency that continues to kill more than 1,000 people a day due to preventable cases of COVID-19, we don’t have time to wait for gradual transformation of America’s carceral system. We need action now.

The American public should have no patience for sheriff-politicians who stand in our way while our loved ones and communities get sick and die. Sheriffs must be held accountable — not by history in some distant future, but right now by voters and those of us with an ethical responsibility to confront practices that put the public in harm’s way. As infection and death counts continue to rise, if sheriffs refuse to act, judges and other county, state, and federal actors must put to use the various existing powers with which they can assert the public interest, by compelling immediate decarceral measures at America’s jails.

Image: Johnell Pannell/Unsplash