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Cook County Jail hiring lags: report

Saturday, December 17, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by DAN ROZEK Staff Reporter

Cook County needs to hire nearly 800 new guards to adequately staff the jail, a consultant's report says -- a process county officials contend could take several years and ultimately cost more than $30 million.

The report released this week concludes that even though about 280 new correctional officers were hired this year at Cook County Jail, many more are needed to comply with federally mandated staffing levels.

The study comes amid ongoing wrangling between Sheriff Michael Sheahan and county commissioners over how many guards to add to meet the terms of a 1996 federal consent decree that requires beefed-up staffing at the sprawling jail. That consent decree -- essentially a legally binding agreement -- came as a result of a federal lawsuit filed by inmates who contended the jail had too many inmates and far too few guards.

A Sheahan spokesman Friday said the recommendations in the report don't sound excessive.

"We think the staffing recommendations in the report are sound and will help to address some concerns in the jail,'' spokesman Bill Cunningham said.

The report by MGT of America concluded that 3,589 correctional officers are needed to properly oversee jail operations. The jail has a roster of 2,791 officers -- 798 fewer than necessary, the report says.

The sheriff's department currently is authorized to have 2,921 guards -- 668 fewer than the number recommended by the report -- but is slightly understrength because of turnover and attrition.

Beefing up the number of correctional officers on duty won't happen overnight. Sheahan in his 2006 budget requested about $10 million to hire 225 new guards.

Process may take three years

"It's something that will take time,'' said Cunningham, estimating it may take at least three years to bring staffing up to levels recommended in the report. The total cost could exceed $30 million, he said.

An attorney representing the inmates who filed the lawsuit said he believes the county should be able to reach the needed staffing levels "within a few years'' but warned that longer delays would provoke more legal action.

"It's not going to be six or seven years,'' said attorney Robert Lehrer, who added, "We're certainly hopeful, and maybe even confident, the county will do what needs to be done.''

A status hearing on jail staffing is set for later this month.

"We're definitely willing to work with the court on this matter,'' said John Gibson, a spokesman for Cook County Board President John Stroger.

The jail currently houses just under 9,000 inmates.

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