In February 2020, my husband, Nickolas Lee, was incarcerated in Cook County Jail in Chicago. The judge didn’t offer him bail. So even though he was presumed innocent, he had to await his trial in jail. When the coronavirus seeped into the facility, he was sleeping in a dormitory with 50 other men, including those with active COVID-19 symptoms. Nick and the other men had no ability to social distance. Although the sheriff’s office claimed to be “clearly leaders in the Country on dealing with the pandemic [sic],” Nick was denied even basic sanitary products, like sanitizer or a mask. He had to use his shirt to cover his nose and mouth.
One day Nick began telling me about other sick people inside his cell, and the conditions that made it impossible to stay safe from the spread of this virus. I started calling Tom Dart, the beloved Democractic sheriff of Cook County. Dart is the man who runs the jail—moldy; infested with mice, cockroaches, and COVID; filled with predominantly Black and brown people—that killed Nick. I wanted to make sure Dart knew about the cramped quarters, the lack of personal protective equipment, and the fact that people with symptoms were on my husband’s tier. I wanted him to help me, but I never heard back from Dart’s office. I couldn’t even leave a message because Dart hadn’t bothered to set up his voicemail.
I kept calling the jail to no avail. Then on March 29, when Nick started exhibiting symptoms, I also started calling Cermak, the hospital on the jail compound. I left voicemail after voicemail with my contact information. I explained how people were crammed in close quarters, how my husband was going hungry because the only food available was served by symptomatic people who were coughing on the trays, and how there was no medical treatment on his tier.
I called and called, but still there was no response. So I started going down to the jail itself, crying out for help to any of the corrections officers walking in or out. They ignored me too.
And as I kept begging for help, Nick’s health kept declining. His symptoms went from a sore throat to a fever. Then from a fever to chills. Next Nick lost his senses of taste and smell, and then all the strength in his muscles was gone. Finally, a week after Nick first started exhibiting symptoms, his jailers finally took action. They moved him to John Stroger, a hospital away from the jail, where he was admitted into the ICU. He was already in a severe stage of COVID-19 and had difficulty breathing. I spoke to him by phone and had never heard my upbeat husband sound so scared. On April 12, Nick died alone, handcuffed to a hospital bed.
After Nick’s death, I struggled to understand what had happened to him. I checked my phone records to try to convince myself I had done everything I possibly could have done. All in all, I’d called Sheriff Dart and other leaders in Chicago 132 times. I’d visited the jail again and again to try to talk to corrections officials. It didn’t matter. Nobody listened.
My soulmate’s death was not inevitable or a tragic oversight. His experience is emblematic of our nation’s shameful response to COVID-19 in jails and prisons that continues unabated today. Things will stay like this until we force them to be otherwise. Before Nick’s death, I was a public school teacher and an advocate for my husband. Now my motivation has shifted. I’m still teaching, but I’m also an activist fighting for everyone who remains locked up in Cook County. Every Sunday, I protest in front of the jail. And I will not stop until things change.
Like so many others across the country, my husband was infected and killed by institutional indifference to the medical needs of people behind bars. But I fear that the sustained public pressure needed to get our leaders to act is being stymied by the perception that only Republican leaders in red states are failing in their COVID-19 response. This is demonstrably false. Leaders in some of the most liberal cities and states in the country—so-called “progressives” who are broadly praised for their pandemic response largely because they’re not Republican—are not thinking progressively about protecting those who are behind bars.
While we can celebrate the shift in power in D.C., we must get real and look past the veneer of heroism now shielding our national and local Democratic leaders from appropriate criticism. We have to demand they act with urgency, decency, and humanity to protect the hundreds of thousands of people they now cage, just as they are obligated to protect the rest of their residents who happen to be free.
When I thought about Nick, I didn’t only think about the fact that he was incarcerated. I thought about the simple things. Being at home with me, watching movies with me, just being a husband and my best friend. Nick was a comedian to me. He would always make me laugh. His laughter, his voice is what I struggle with the most. His voice is what I miss the most right now. His comfort. There was always that light at the end of the tunnel because I knew that he would come back. I wish our leaders had made that possible. But far too often, elected officials have sought to dehumanize people incarcerated during the pandemic by trying to define them by the charges they faced. Those charges have been an excuse for our leaders to deny incarcerated people the care they deserved.
In New York, for example, I’ve read about how Democractic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who they call a hero, has only commuted three sentences since the pandemic hit. As if that weren’t enough, Cuomo has forced people incarcerated to mass produce hand sanitizer for pennies and then refused to let them use it because the alcohol inside made it “contraband.” In Michigan, I’ve seen how Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has refused to use her pardon or clemency power at all in response to COVID, even though the virus is sweeping through her prisons. And in California, I’ve learned about how Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom recently vetoed a bill that would make jail calls to loved ones more affordable, while also transferring hundreds of people from state jails and prisons into ICE custody.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, people incarcerated in Chicago and their supporters like me—loved ones, advocates, activists, organizers, and public defenders joined by medical health professionals—have been unified and unwavering in our calls for those in power to take definitive action. They need to reduce incarcerated populations and improve conditions to save lives. But our calls have been ignored. Although we saw some hopeful signs and positive gestures early on when the media was paying more attention to social injustice, now that politics are “back to normal” our governors, mayors, sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges have returned to their business-as-usual cruelty.
It has been eight months since Nick’s death. Today, the conditions in the Cook County Jail, like those in many other jails and prisons throughout the country, remain just as horrific and inhumane as when Nick was dying near the beginning of the pandemic. Although community action and litigation initially forced Sheriff Dart to improve conditions inside the jail—over his strenuous objection—the number of people jailed at the facility where my husband died has silently crept back up to pre-pandemic levels. Now there are 5,500 people inside.
To this day, the only time the sheriff’s office “communicated” with me was in an article where he brought up Nick’s criminal record seemingly as a way to justify his death. What he was charged with is not the point. He did not deserve to die. But it’s not just Sheriff Tom Dart. Chicago’s “progressive” mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has demeaned the movement to defund Chicago’s notoriously brutal and corrupt police as a “nice hashtag.” Meanwhile, Lightfoot is supporting violent policing, blocking transparency into even the most outrageous cases of police abuse, and pushing for more pre-trial jailing. Kim Foxx, the “progressive” Cook County State’s Attorney, also has been a major obstacle to reducing the overwhelming jail population. She has argued against any form of mass release, and allows her prosecutors to fight daily to send more people to the deadly jail.
Nationwide, at least 580,000 people in jails and prisons have been infected with COVID-19 as of February 5, 2021. People inside jails and prisons have been infected at a rate more than five times higher than the rest of the country. In just a matter of months, more incarcerated people have died from COVID-19 than all of those executed in the last 20 years. Thousands of dreams have been extinguished, and for what?
Nick was always hopeful. I remember how much he wanted to go to the Dominican Republic. He loved to swim. One day he got a magazine and saw a picture that was really beautiful. He was just so fascinated with how clear and pretty the water was. He told me, “I can’t wait till we get there.” I was thinking about this moment when his health started giving way. Instead of us dreaming about that clear future, he was asking me, “Cassy, is anybody beating this thing?” He could have, if someone with power had cared. Nick was a human being. He didn’t deserve to be condemned to die by people who refuse to recognize even this basic fact.
I’ve come to realize that as long as our leaders—progressive or conservative—have the discretion to cage and hurt people, they will do so. I’m more convinced today than ever that the most important way to improve public health and safety is to strip leaders of their unchecked power to throw people in prison or jail.
Recently, Illinois took a historic step in the right direction at last. In mid January, the state legislature passed the Pretrial Fairness Act, which ends the use of cash bail and overhauls the pretrial justice system to ensure that no one is incarcerated without first having a thorough and fair hearing. But our leaders must not be allowed to pretend this is a silver bullet for the evils of mass incarceration. They must use their power to release as many people as possible, as soon as possible. For those incarcerated people not released, leaders should ensure social distancing, other COVID-19 precautions, and vaccine priority. Under normal circumstances, pretrial incarceration causes people to lose their jobs and homes. These circumstances are not normal, and the stakes are even higher. We must act now before another family experiences a loss like I have.
The night before Nick died, I spoke to him over the phone. I shared memories with him and talked about all of the things we were going to do together. He could barely speak, but through gasps of air he told me, “Please stay in the house, I don’t want you to catch this.” He died the following morning.
I wish I could listen to Nick’s wishes to stay home. But I can’t. I want the leaders to know that although the people inside don’t seem to matter to them, they matter to me.