Documents Reveal a Series of Protests and Uprisings at Cook County Jail, Chicago

Documents Reveal a Series of Protests and Uprisings at Cook County Jail, Chicago

Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois
April 29, 2020

Documents recently released by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office reveal numerous incidents of prisoner-led protest and rebellion against guards and staff in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak at the facility. As of May 6, more than 500 detainees at the Cook County Jail have tested positive for Covid-19 and 7 have died, according to statistics gathered by Injustice Watch and documents filed in court.

On April 3, a group of detainees at the facility filed a class action lawsuit petitioning the court to order the Sheriff’s department to take immediate measures to improve health and sanitation at the facility, including by transferring or releasing to “some other form of custody” those detainees most vulnerable to the virus.

On April 9, US District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly granted, in part, the detainee’s petition for a temporary restraining order, ordering the Sheriff’s Department to provide soap and hand sanitizer to detainees and institute the sanitation of surfaces, refrain from the use of “bullpens” for holding detainees in large groups, institute effective testing measures for Covid-19, and distribute facemasks to detainees, all within two to three days time.

On April 27, the court issued a preliminary injunction, ordering the Sheriff to take additional measures to slow the spread of Covid-19 and file a report on the implementation of those measures no later than May 1.

The subsequent report, filed on behalf of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, reveals that in addition to the lawsuit, detainees at the facility have repeatedly acted to disrupt the smooth functioning of the jail. The disruptive actions taken by detainees have included coordinated hunger strikes, attacks on guards, attacks on other detainees, collective refusals, and an uprising involving more than a dozen detainees.

The events were first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.

On April 7 at least 34 detainees participated in a hunger strike in one unit while at last 4 detainees in another unit attempted to block staff from delivery dinner trays, stating that their unit was also participating in the strike. Detainees told officers that they were “going to stop eating in protest of being incarcerated in jail during the current COVID Virus and that they should be freed,” according to the incident report.

The group Assata’s Daughters spoke with a detainee inside the jail who explained that those on strike were demanding their immediate release. “We’re also humans too, in other words,” the striker stated.  The detainee also stated that Director Miller had come to negotiate with the detainees after they refused their third meal, but told them that decisions regarding release were out of his hands. The detainee also specifically expressed the need to spotlight those who are “not non-violent offenders.”

On May 1, Director Miller submitted the report below, in addition to testifying under oath about to his efforts to reduce the population of the jail.

The hunger strike occurred on the same day as hundreds of supporters representing a coalition of over 20 organizations held a car demonstration outside the jail, calling attention to the health crisis in the jail and demanding “mass release.” According to one of the incident reports on the hunger strike, an officer who spoke with the hunger strikers “was informed by various inmates on the tier that people in the world were doing their part and they (inmates on the tier) needed to protest too.”

During the demonstration, detainees inside the jail made signs that read “HELP” and “Help, We Matter 2” and posted them in their cell windows.


One week later, The New York Post reported a violent incident at the jail that occurred on April 14 and which was caught on video. During this disturbance prisoners attacked multiple guards before stealing their keys and attempting to release others. The April 14 incident was not reflected in the list of events in the Sheriff’s report.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, many detained in Cook County continued to participate in intermittent hunger strikes through April 16 through the refusal of food trays. There have also been multiple actions and petitions organized by those held in Division 11 and Division 10 – both men’s divisions. In an interview the Tribune conducted with Donnelle Thurman, an incarcerated person involved in the hunger strikes, he described how, “Inmates put out a stress signal to each other, like, man, we need to stand together.” Thurman also reported that some conditions had improved, such as the availability of masks. The sheriff’s officials said they forwarded the petitions to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

The Appeal also interviewed those involved with these hunger strikes in Division 10 and 11. Brandon Perkins, who was involved in the hunger strike, detailed how the delays in the courts have impacted those detained at Cook County, stating “If we can’t get to court we can’t move on from this place. It’s worse to be here than in prison because there’s so much uncertainty.”

Later in the month, at least 13 prisoners housed in the medical isolation unit at Cook County Jail “made an uprising”, according to the report. The event occurred on April 29, when detainees stood on tables and chairs, damaged medical equipment and used them as weapons. According to the incident report:

On 29 April 2020 at approximately 0750hrs, Emergency Response Team was activated by Director Howell to respond to a major incident cause by multiple detainees in RTU Tier 3G (Isolation Medical Tier)…Upon arrival to RTU, the following information was given to ERT; multiple detainees on Tier 3G made an uprising against sworn staff in RTU and threatened staff of causing great bodily harm if staff were to enter Tier 3G. Detainees on 3G purposely broke medical crutches and wheelchairs to be used as weapons against sworn staff. Detainees purposely threw soapy water all over the dayroom floor especially near entry doors in order to make it difficult and dangerous for responding sworn staff to maintain footing when entering Tier 3G. Multiple detainees also purposely laid down on dayroom floor near entry doors in order to obstruct sworn staff from properly moving on to Tier 3G.”

The reports also indicate that detainees were fighting each other during the melee.

The motivations of the prisoners who participated in the uprising remains unclear at this time. According to the incident report, the disturbance began after detainees requested that the phones be turned on in their unit approximately 35 minutes ahead of schedule. It is unknown whether the Covid-19 outbreak in the jail was a contributing factor, nor whether detainees were protesting conditions in the medical isolation unit.

Covid-19 infection rate at Cook County Jail as of May 6, 2020 (Image source: Injustice Watch).

The report revealed the existence of several additional incidents including a disruption on April 11 in which at least four detainees simultaneously attempted or threatened to attempt suicide–climbing to the top of their unit and threatening to jump while other detainees tied bedsheets around their necks.

On April 28, at least four detainees refused orders and fought guards until they were eventually removed from the unit by a squadron of guards in riot gear. The motivations of the prisoners involved are unknown.

When detainees filed their lawsuit, there were 167 cases of Covid-19 at the jail, according to their Class Action Complaint. A little over a month later, that number has increased to 517, and 7 have died. The number of infections, of course, includes only those who have been tested for the virus. Documents filed by the plaintiff’s in court today allege that testing at the facility remains inadequate, alleging the jail is in violation of the court’s injunction ordering sufficient testing.

Although the jail continues to detain 4,050 people, this number is down significantly from 5,710 in early March.

Cook County Department of Corrections Daily Population Rate (Image source: Supplemental Declaration of Michael Miller).

During the same period, the number of people in the “community corrections” program has risen by approximately 700, indicating that the Sheriff’s Department is relying heavily on electronic monitoring and other forms of custody as it lowers its jail population.

Cook County Department of Corrections Community Corrections Population Graph (Image Source: Supplemental Declaration of Michael Miller).

The report also indicated that the jail was booking an average of 144 less people per day at the end of April than it was at the beginning of March, 2020. The number of detainees booked and then released within 24 hours during the same period of time had also increased, but only slightly.

CC Jail-Michael Miller testimony



Class Action Complaint: Representative Petition for Habeas Corpus“, Mays v. Thomas (1:20-cv-02134), District Court, N.D. Illinois, April 3, 2020.

Matthew F. Kennelly, Memorandum Opinion and Order,” Mays v. Thomas (1:20-cv-02134), District Court, N.D. Illinois, April 27, 2020.

Preliminary Injunction“, Mays v. Thomas (1:20-cv-02134), District Court, N.D. Illinois, April 27, 2020.

Supplemental Declaration of Michael Miller“, Mays v. Thomas (1:20-cv-02134), District Court, N.D. Illinois, May 1, 2020.

Defense’s Post-Preliminary Injunction Report“, Mays v. Thomas (1:20-cv-02134), District Court, N.D. Illinois, May 1, 2020.

Dart touts improvements, warns of security issues as Cook County Jail battles COVID-19“, Chicago Sun-Times, May 4, 2020.

COVID-19 Cases at CCDOC“, Cook County Sheriff’s Office, nd.

Assata’s Daughters (@assatadaughters), April 7, 2020. AUDIO: We spoke to a member of @Circles_Ciphers about a recent mass hunger strike inside of Cook County Jail that took place over the weekend. They were protesting health measures and demanding #MassReleaseNow [Tweet]. Accessed May 3, 2020.

Wild video shows Chicago inmate attack officers, free other prisoners,” New York Post, April 15, 2020.

Cook County Jail inmates begin refusing food over COVID-19, sheriff forwards their petition for better treatment to judge,” Chicago Tribune, April 16, 2020.

Dozens of reports from inside Cook County Jail paint a grim picture as COVID-19 cases soar,” The Appeal, April 28, 2020.


Author: Ryan Fatica
Article Published: 5/6/2020

Header Photo Source: It’s Going Down