ROCKFORD — About 40 vehicles circled the block around the Winnebago County Justice Center Friday afternoon as part of a demonstration calling on the county's criminal justice authorities to free jail inmates to keep them safe from COVID-19.
The group of citizen protesters, who described themselves as a coalition of organizations from across the Rockford area, drove in circles around the jail with horns honking and briefly stopped in front of the justice center. A handmade sign that read "Free them all" was affixed to one of the vehicles. Another sign read "There is no social distancing in Winnebago County Jail."
Shalonda Lambert of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said several of the demonstrators, herself included, had loved ones inside the jail. They’re concerned about the conditions and the health of the detainees, who have no choice over who they come in contact with, she said.
She wanted to deliver a message to criminal justice authorities: "I need them to understand that our loved ones’ lives matter," she said.
One inmate and one corrections officer have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department. The county said April 26 that a man in his 40s, who had been in custody since March 30, tested positive for the potentially fatal respiratory disease.
The corrections officer tested positive in mid-April but had been off duty since March 5.
Similar protests have been staged at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, one of the largest facilities in the country and home to one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks. There have been 500 detainees and 300 corrections officers to test positive for the virus in Cook County, and six inmates and one guard have died from COVID-19, according to WBEZ.
In Rockford, Lambert said inmates need better medical care, food and for their masks to be changed out more frequently.
In a news release issued Friday, demonstrators listed several demands of those with decision-making authority within the county's criminal justice system:
The release of all county jail inmates on a self-recognizance bond or reduced bond.
The release of all county detainees in the jail or in county detention facilities as soon as possible, including at-risk, youth and immune-compromised individuals and those over the age of 50.
Request that federal officials release those held in the jail on federal charges.
Prohibit punitive confinement of inmates to singe cells for 23 hours a day and provide inmates with personal protective equipment and mandatory coronavirus testing.
Provide all inmates and detainees with personal hygiene, cleaning, and sanitation supplies and free and access to free health care services, phone calls and messaging services.
The jail remains a safe detention facility for inmates, said Katie Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's department. The department is cleaning and sanitizing the jail more frequently since the coronavirus outbreak began and any new inmates booked at the jail are housed in separate quarters from those already there, she said.
Inmates pay nothing for a COVID-19 test and, for a nominal copay, have access to around-the-clock health care, including medical, dental, mental health and pharmaceutical services provided by University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford. Any inmate who complains of illness or COVID-19 symptoms is immediately tested for the virus and provided any necessary medical treatment, Zimmerman said.
The jail population has dropped significantly since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The jail has had roughly 560 detainees a day this month compared to 780 per day last year.
That reduction is largely because police in mid-March started issuing notices to appear in court for misdemeanor crimes rather than making an arrest. Authorities also identified nonviolent offenders for release after judges could weigh in on the matter in bond court.
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