In recent weeks, University of Chicago students have struggled to cope with the onset of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has forced them to evacuate campus in the middle of final exams. Instead of helping students during this unprecedented crisis, the University in many instances continued to hold finals while remaining silent over whether many of its workers would be paid. Students and staff alike were left without institutional support as they struggled to secure jobs, housing, and travel on extremely short notice, forcing mutual aid and labor groups to come together to lobby the University, securing some commitments to support RAs and non-faculty staff.
For many students, the realization that the University cares more about academic output than our well-being and that it ultimately will not support us in this time of crisis was quite saddening. Unfortunately, the University has a disturbing history of failing to support students in crisis beginning long before the spread of COVID-19. An example of one such failure is the University’s treatment of Charles Soji Thomas.
On April 3, 2018, Charles was shot by the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) while experiencing a manic episode during a mental health crisis. Rather than provide Charles with the opportunity to continue his education and begin to heal amongst his community, the Cook County State’s Attorney charged him with eight felonies. Today, two years later, Charles remains incarcerated, in more danger than ever before as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Inside Cook County jail, while guards wear masks, those incarcerated are given no such protection and lack access to hand sanitizer or soap. Furthermore, they are fed diets that lack adequate nutrition, with lunch just days ago in Cook County consisting only of a bag of pretzels and four slices of plain bread. Last Tuesday, on March 24, two people on Charles’s tier tested positive for the virus and were removed. On Wednesday, Charles was placed into a holding cell with at least 10 other people from different tiers and divisions. Charles and others have been instructed to stay away from each other. However, in an enclosed environment, practicing adequate social distancing is next to impossible and there is no telling who has been exposed. By Thursday, there were 24 reported cases of COVID-19 among the Cook County Jail population, with another 63 tests pending; additionally, 9 sheriff’s employees had tested positive.
Today, there are over 160 reported cases, and these numbers will increase exponentially in the coming weeks given what we know about the disease’s typical spread. Due to these circumstances, Charles’s family has requested that he be released from jail, having already made the necessary preparations and commitments to support him upon his release. This includes always having a family member in Chicago who would live with him in order to ensure he stays safe in case of future mental health crises. His father, who is a registered nurse and currently resides in Chicago, would also have the expertise to care for him. Despite all this, Neera Walsh, the judge on his case, denied his emergency release request in a bond hearing on Tuesday, March 24, asserting that Charles is a danger to himself and the safest place for him is to be locked up in a “secure environment.”
Jail is never a “safe place”—people who are incarcerated experience violence at the hands of guards, are deprived of nutritious food, and are made vulnerable to disease due to living in such close quarters in a closed system. COVID-19 is not just a threat to Charles, but to the entirety of those held in Cook County Jail and to incarcerated populations everywhere. There are currently roughly 5,000 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail today, most of whom still await trial and thus have not been found guilty of any crime. If action is not taken immediately, these conditions, which make jails and prisons exacerbate the ongoing public health crisis, will surely prove fatal as the pandemic continues to spread. Lockdowns, solitary confinement, and prohibiting visitors are punitive and ineffective responses to this crisis. The only just response is decarceration, in Cook County Jail and in jails, prisons, and detention centers across the country. Currently, community and advocacy organizations across Chicago are making efforts to release people detained in jails and prisons. Chicago Community Bond Fund has organized call-ins for Cook County Jail to decarcerate in the name of public health, and has recently filed an amicus brief in support of mass release.
Back at UChicago, as thousands of people scrambled to evacuate campus with no institutional support, community members have formed mutual aid networks where hundreds compiled information and pooled resources to support each other when the University wouldn’t. The past several weeks have shown what many student organizers already know to be true: This University will not move to protect students or staff unless we demand it. It is our responsibility to support Charles in this moment. This is why we are calling on President Zimmer to make a statement in support of Charles’s release in this pressing moment, to give him support, long overdue, from a University which has criminalized and harmed him for over two years.
The University has failed to take responsibility for the consequences of its toxic culture of stress and isolation, a failure that manifests in the University’s understaffed and under-resourced Student Counseling Service that paved the way for Charles’s situation. For two years, students and alumni have called on the University to right these wrongs, yet UChicago administrators have actively chosen to stay silent to avoid culpability. Their silence makes them complicit in the daily violence experienced by Charles and his family while he is incarcerated. Most recently, Charles and his family have filed a civil lawsuit against the University, UCPD, and Nicholas Twardak, the officer who shot him in the shoulder.
While the University’s lack of support is inexcusable in itself, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, this inaction is lethal. Already, within a week of being denied the release, we got word from Charles’s parents that he had fallen ill with symptoms of COVID-19 on Sunday, March 29. Almost everyone on his tier has gotten sick, and none of them are receiving treatment. Ironically, because he has gotten sick, Charles will have another bond hearing tomorrow, Friday, April 3, to reconsider his release. It is imperative that Charles is released tomorrow, as we know that Cook County’s medical facility is unable to handle the unchecked spread of the virus and care for all those infected. We must not let Charles become a statistic in COVID-19’s mortality rate.
In the midst of this pandemic, it is more important now than ever to call for decarceration and come together as a UChicago community to support one of our fellow students. Join us in calling Associate Judge Neera Walsh to demand that she reconsider Charles’s second-chance probation request and in calling President Zimmer to demand that he publicly advocate for Charles’s release. Find more information on phone numbers and a script here, and follow #CareNotCops and the #DropTheCharges campaign on Facebook.