Inmates say nine months without personal protective devices, inconsistent disinfecting efforts, spotty testing, and chronic overcrowding has allowed COVID-19 to spread nearly unchecked throughout the St. Clair County Jail.
At least three detainees have died from the virus, the inmates say, because their complaints have been ignored by jail staff.
Preston Thomas, 57, a federal detainee awaiting trial, died Jan. 26, two weeks after being transferred by ambulance to the Memorial Hospital Intensive Care Unit, his family confirmed.
On Feb. 3, a Sheriff’s Department press release confirmed the death of another 63-year-old inmate, whose identity has not been released, from complications of COVID-19.
Then, on Feb. 19, Samuel L. Johnson, 55, died from the effects of the respiratory disease in a hospital.
“I fear for my life in here,” said Roderick Whittaker, 29, who has been held at the jail since November 20. “There is so much COVID going around and no one has come to talk to me about my complaint.”
More than 30 current and former detainees and relatives have contacted the news over the last 11 months, each echoing complaints about jail conditions, the inadequate response of those in charge, and how those two factors have led to what they believe has been a persistent and under-reported spread of the virus within the facility’s walls.
Twenty-four of them have added their names as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against county officials that include Watson, Board Chairman Mark Kern, State’s Attorney Jim Gomric, multiple jail guards and contracted nurses.
“They are inmates, but they are human beings, too,” said Cortez King, whose uncle, Cameron Belk, 51, is being held at the jail as he awaits trial.
Overcrowding at jail
Chronic overcrowding at the jail makes social distancing next to impossible and the spread of illnesses not only likely, but inevitable.
The jail has capacity for 418 inmates, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. As of Feb. 3, the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department reported that the jail’s average daily population since the pandemic began is 493. In recent months, the population has, at times, surged above 500 inmates.
At least 275 of those currently detained are Black or Hispanic, both ethnic groups that have been disproportionately affected by COVID infections. Many said they have pre-existing conditions, which also makes them vulnerable to the virus, according to the CDC. Most have not been convicted and are being held as they await trial.
Social distancing as a means of slowing the spread of COVID isn’t possible in the cell block areas, the detainees say.
“It’s overpopulated. People are sleeping on floors, in the gym,” said Jovi Anderson, 31, a former inmate who had been detained at the jail. “We can’t just stay 6 feet apart from each other at all. If I take my hand out of my bed, I’m touching the next person who’s sleeping next to me.”
According to the Sheriff’s Department, 10,863 inmates have been processed through jail doors between March 11, 2020, and Feb. 3, 2021, a daily churn of about 33 detainees who could potentially carry the virus from the outside.