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More Than Half of Chicago’s COVID-19 Cases Linked to Cook County Jail

The study examined the relationship between jail cycling and community infections across different neighborhoods in the state of Illinois, one of the nation’s largest jails. That data showed that as of April 19, 2020, almost 1 in 6 coronavirus cases in the state were linked to people who cycled through the Cook County Jail in Chicago in March.

Jail cycling happens when people are arrested for minor infractions and put in jail for a short time and then released. According to studies, about 95 percent of people booked into jails across the country were arrested for non-violent crimes, and 42 percent were proven innocent. The numbers add up fast. According to the FBI, about 28,000 people are arrested every single day in this country. That means over 10 million people are arrested and cycled through a county jail every year in the U.S.

Jail cycling has a “multiplier effect,” says Eric Reinhart, one of the study’s authors. “For every one person you cycle through the jail [whether that person becomes infected or not], in the ZIP code from which they have come and which they will return to, within a three to four week lag you’re going to see 2.149 more cases.” When you consider that more than 100,000 people cycle through the Cook County Jail every year, that’s a huge scale, he said.

To be more specific, researchers found that the cycling of 2,129 people through the Cook County Jail in March alone was tied to 4,575 additional known COVID-19 cases in the state in mid-April. That’s almost 16 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the entire state linked to the jail.

“We forget that these institutions are not simply contained spaces, but part of our communities,” Reinhart said. “They’re very porous. People go in and they go out.”

Unsurprisingly, the study found jail cycling disproportionately affected Black communities. These are highly policed communities resulting in more arrests. In Chicago, Blacks make up 30 percent of the population, but make up 75 percent of the prisoners in Cook County Jail. The rate of release was highest in Black-dominated ZIP codes, the study found.

The study did not account for the hundreds of jail staffers returning home to their communities, bringing the virus with them, because that data were not available. But the authors suggest it’s an additional source of COVID-19 spread that must be considered.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Chicago Department of Public Health disputed the study and requested it to be removed. 


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