Coronavirus in Jail: The Life and Loss of Nickolas Lee
Cassandra Greer-Lee and Nickolas Lee (Illustration: Arabella Breck)
This story was originally published by City Bureau on June 5, 2020.
A widow tried to save her late husband’s life during his stay at 26th and Cal. Instead she witnessed the explosive spread of COVID-19 inside.
As told to Sarah Conway
The day after her husband died on Easter Sunday, Cassandra Greer-Lee’s emotions swung from shock to pain to confusion. She wondered whether she did everything she could to save Nickolas Lee from the rapid spread of coronavirus inside Cook County Jail.
She thought of the long stream of calls she had frantically dialed over the past few weeks as Cook County Jail rapidly cemented itself as the “largest-known source” of coronavirus cases in the U.S.
Scrolling through her calls, the numbers ballooned from 60 to 70 to 90 to 100 to finally 132 calls made to the sheriff’s office, a jail sergeant’s desk line, the jail hospital and others to alert them to the spread of coronavirus on Lee’s tier—almost all were unanswered.
Lee was the third of seven detainees who have died after contracting the virus at Cook County Jail. Since then, almost 1,000 Cook County Jail employees and detainees have tested positive for COVID-19; two corrections officers and one court deputy have also died, according to WTTW. Like 98% of inmates at Cook County Jail, Lee was awaiting trial. He had been charged by the county for gun possession after violating federal parole.
Beyond its walls, one in every six cases of COVID-19 in Chicago and Illinois can be connected to people who passed through the Cook County Jail, according to a new study released Thursday.
“For elected officials to sell the narrative that they could structure social distancing behind walls is a myth they were able to sell to the residents of Cook County and Illinois,” said Chicago Torture Justice Center’s Mark Clements, an exonerated police torture survivor who spent 28 years in prison on a recent Hoodoisie panel on the pandemic.
Greer-Lee spoke with City Bureau about her love for Nickolas Lee and the fight to save his life. Here is her story, as told to Sarah Conway. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This guy was my best friend.
Nickolas Lee was a very hard worker. He loved family. He loved to cook. Oh, my god, one of the best cooks ever. He loved to see me smile. A comedian. Nickolas was a big guy, but he was a teddy bear. When I tell you he was one of the most thoughtful people, I was blessed to have him in my life. I miss him so much daily so I’m trying to do the best that I can to fight and get justice. And this is just really the beginning.
I met Nickolas when I was 17 years old in South Shore where we both grew up. He was friends with my brother and he really liked me but I couldn’t have boyfriends, so my brother said, “Well, no, you can’t talk to my sister.” But Nickolas was always persistent. He was always try, try, try, try, try.
He said one day, “You’re going to be my wife.” When I became grown and I came back [to Chicago] and started my career he was one of my No. 1 supporters. We have been together for 20 years and married for four years. Even with his incarceration, he would call me each day. He would get up and call me every morning on my way to work. When I would come home with my lesson plans, he’d be on the phone giving me little ideas for the children that I teach.
What we did really love was going to La Rabida on the lakefront here on the South Side. Together we’d watch the sun come up. He fell in love with the sunrise deeper than me. Nickolas would say, “Come on, let’s go.” I just showed him something different. He saw how peaceful it was and how the sun beams when it comes up off the water almost as if it is arising from the water itself. And he loved that, watching the sun. My guy, he loved it.
I don’t know if it’ll still be the same if I went now though. I look now at the things that I really loved to see, like the skyline, and it all feels so dark. It reminds me, oh my god, I have a lifetime to go without him. Everything in our city that was beautiful to me is dull now. I miss him so much. I miss his voice. I just miss talking to him. He was my soulmate and I know I will never have another one. He really was.
That’s why I have to fight for him, because he’s supposed to be here. He would have fought for me. I am a firm believer in God, so I don’t question what happened to Nickolas, but I have to fight to make sure it don’t happen to no one else.
Nickolas was totally fine and healthy when he left federal custody because he had to get a medical clearance to be transferred to Cook County Jail. His court date was supposed to be the beginning of March, but due to the pandemic, they rescheduled it to April 22. He never made it to that day.
It started the second week of March. I was speaking to Nickolas every day, several times a day, and one day he told me that there were two sick inmates on the dormitory-style tier that he shared with 50 other people. We wasn’t really knowledgeable at all about the coronavirus at that time.
I would listen to Mayor Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker on the daily news briefings so I could be abreast of what they were saying as far as symptoms, precautions and just anything about the virus. So as I would tell him the symptoms, and one day he said, “Cassandra, some men possess these symptoms, I think they have this virus.” I said, “Nick, do not worry.
What I need you to do is to cover your nose and your mouth throughout the entire day with your T-shirt because they say it’s airborne and when you call me, you need to take a separate T-shirt and wrap it around the phone.” He did that but the gentlemen on his tier didn’t have any sanitizing products or anything.
I mean absolutely nothing. And when you are in one room with up to 50 gentlemen, it’s so hard to isolate yourself. So I just asked him to please try to stay safe. So as time went along, the men on the tier became more and more sick. We both were afraid. He wanted to move away from the tier, of course.
Nickolas even went so far that he found a unit downstairs. He said it was for intake and there weren’t very many people there. He was hoping they’d send him down there just so he could try to social distance himself. He just wanted to live. I recall one time I was on the phone and I heard one of the gentlemen near him said, “I feel like I’m about to pass out.”
That’s when I started calling trying to get Nickolas moved from the tier. So I’m calling, calling. Nickolas asked me daily on our calls, “Did anybody answer?” I’m like, no. He would go to the window and you know, ask the guards like, “Is there other numbers my wife can call? She can’t get through here at Division 8.” And they would say, well, she can call that Inmate Information Helpline. I called it to no avail.
Finally, on March 28 someone answered the phone. She was very polite. She explained to me that during this pandemic they were short staffed. There were no social workers available for me to speak with. I said, “Okay. Is there a sergeant that I can speak with?” She said, give her 24 hours and someone would get back to me. My husband didn’t show his first symptom until the very next day, which was March 29. He said he had a sore throat. I’m still saying, God, just let it be a common cold.
So I’m calling, calling, calling. I’m calling Division 8. I’m calling the Inmate Information Helpline. I’m calling Tom Dart’s office. I’m calling Cermak [Health Services]. No one is answering. My husband’s health is declining daily. It went so fast, so fast. You wouldn’t believe it. It went from a sore throat to a fever, from a fever to a loss of sense of taste and smell to chills, from chills to total weakness.
I’m still trying to encourage Nickolas because I don’t want him to panic. But on the inside I’m panicking. I’m calling. I even went to the jail gates and I could see the guards coming in and out. I asked them for help or advice. They had none for me, but just to call.
My husband’s calling me daily, “Did you speak to anybody?” Baby, I am trying. I’m trying. This was one of the worst things that could happen to any human being; to cry out for help and to just feel silence. Finally, they took my husband on April 6 to Stroger Hospital ICU. Cook County Jail never called me even. I found out from someone on his tier that Nickolas had gone to the hospital.
When he got to Stroger my husband was already in a severe stage of COVID. The doctors and nurses there were so wonderful to me. I called around the clock. I’m talking about, I would call at 2:30 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. in the morning. I knew every nurse on every schedule. I knew the personal doctor who would call me daily to keep me abreast with his condition and what was going on. I am so grateful for them. And I was blessed that I was able to speak with Nickolas for one last time on April 11 at 7:30 p.m.
I said, “Nickolas, I love you so much. I need you.” I kept encouraging him. You know my husband is a very strong person and it was the first time he felt like something was defeating him. Nickolas said, “Cassandra, is people beating this?” I said, “Baby, thousands are, and you’re going to be one of them.” That was my prayer. People will never understand the pain and the agony of that conversation. That was my last conversation with my husband. God saw Nick fit for something else. He passed away the next morning, April 12, on Easter Sunday, at 4:28 a.m. He was 42 years old.
Still I’m out here fighting daily with my protests outside Cook County Jail because you know, had one person, just one person just answered, heard my cries, heard my pleas, and just helped my husband, he would still be here today. He would be here.
This isn’t fair to him. It isn’t fair to me. Our family, no one. I am going to fight for him until the day I die because I know he would have done it for me. This has stopped my life, as well. We had a future, he had a chance to come back into society and be a productive citizen. Nickolas was portrayed in the media as a convicted felon by the Sheriff’s office when he died. He was a person. He wasn’t “detainee 3.” He did not die of “cardiac arrest” as the Sheriff’s office told the media. Did his criminal history warrant him to die? That’s all I want to know as his wife.
All of my constitutional rights and Nickolas’ were violated. That’s why we have a judicial system put in place, for my husband to go back in front of the judge so he could either be found guilty or not guilty. He didn’t get that chance. Cook County Jail found him guilty and sentenced him to a slow, painful death by coronavirus. It took three inmates to die before they gave out face masks, Nickolas being the third. So I’m going to keep fighting because I have to. I want the world to know that his death could have been prevented.
Justice for me is to see Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart either resign or get fired, and then go ahead and live his life with his family. Justice means accountability and making sure that this doesn’t happen to another family. That’s why I’m fighting every day because I lost the battle for my husband.
I did. You know, a lot of people say Cassandra, you didn’t, you tried the best that you could. I lost the battle. There is no other way to look at it. I lost the battle for Nickolas Lee, but I’m still here. God has me here for a reason. It’s now to continue to fight for the others. I can’t let this happen to another family.
Cassandra Greer-Lee is outside of Division 10 at Cook County Jail every day at 1 p.m. She welcomes anyone who wants to honor her husband’s memory or support people who are currently incarcerated.
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