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When did Cook County Jail get to be a flee circus?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times

When a Chicago public school is failing, administrators close it down and start over from scratch. It's too bad we can't do the same thing with the Cook County Jail, for it's clear that something is failing there. Two dramatic jailbreaks in the last few days. A jail visitor who somehow allegedly smuggles a gun to her inmate boyfriend, leading to a staged shooting of three inmates. A federal judge ordering the County Board to hire up to 800 more guards to address a shortage.

Whatever officials are doing to fix things, it's not working.

Is the problem complacency by correctional officers? That's what the father of one of Sunday's six escapees thinks. Tyrone Everhart Sr. is a bit more qualified than most parents to assess the situation, since he is a captain on the force at the jail. He even warned that his son, Tyrone Everhart Jr., was plotting an escape, leading to his son being transferred to the maximum security unit. Even that didn't stop the jailbreak.

Or is the problem culpability by guards or staff? It's hard to imagine how you could smuggle a gun into the jail without at least one gua rd looking the other way.

Or is the problem understaffing? A consultant's report last fall found a need to hire nearly 800 new guards. It's easy to see how a corrections officer might take shortcuts if he or she feels overworked or stressed. And it's easy to see how understaffing could lead to longer hours, and then fatigue. Or maybe it leads to someone being assigned to an unfamiliar duty. On Friday, an inmate escaped by slipping into the back of a laundry truck. That's the kind of caper we've seen countless times in the movies, yet a sloppy guard apparently didn't make a simple check as the truck pulled out. And in Sunday's escape, a guard violated policy by entering a unit for violent criminals alone. He was overpowered and six inmates escaped.

Or is the problem lack of leadership? Well, county leaders have provided plenty of ammunition for someone to level that charge at them. This year, for instance, the County Board is boosting funding to hire more correctio nal officers only because the judge ordered them to. And rather than find a responsible way to pay for them, the board simply rejiggered its revenue estimates. That's like spending a raise before your boss gives you one.

And it's a good thing Sheriff Michael Sheahan isn't running for re-election, because the jail would have been a major liability. Even so, Sheahan will be sheriff for another year. Problems with complacency, and problems attributable to understaffing, can be solved with training -- it's clear the jailbreaks and the smuggling would not have happened if procedures had been followed. It's Sheahan's job to find out why they weren't.

Let's get busy finding answers to these questions. And remember, voters will have a chance this November to make sure those answers are good ones.

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