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U.S. probing County Jail. Medical care, use of force reviewed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Matt O'Connor

The U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation of Cook County Jail, focusing on the use of force by officers as well as the quality of medical care provided to inmates, officials acknowledged Monday.
 
Word of the probe comes as recent county budget cutbacks and the firing of the jail's top doctors raised concerns among some experts that the sprawling jail on Chicago's West Side is failing to provide adequate medical care as required by law.
 
Assistant U.S. Atty. Joan Laser, a prosecutor in the civil division in Chicago, confirmed that representatives from the Justice Department's civil rights division and the U.S. attorney's office here have opened a civil, not criminal, probe of the jail.
 
The department won't say what prompted the probe.
 
"The investigation is actually focused on the jail's use of force, their ability to protect inmates from harm and the adequacy of medical and mental health care," Laser said.
 
She said the probe is being brought under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, a 1980 law that authorizes the attorney general to investigate whether conditions at jails, prisons, juvenile correctional facilities and state- or locally run mental-health facilities and nursing homes meet constitutional standards.
 
Jail officials are cooperating in the investigation, Laser said, but she declined to elaborate.
 
Two officials who met separately with Justice Department representatives last month said the investigators appeared most concerned about medical and mental health care at the jail but also had questions about its safety and security.
 
Daniel Gallagher, a lawyer for Sheriff Tom Dart, said Justice Department officials expect to hire experts in corrections and corrections medicine as consultants in the probe. They tentatively scheduled separate visits to the jail by these consultants in June and July, he said.
 
Dart, who took office in December after serving as Sheriff Michael Sheahan's chief of staff, has promised his office's cooperation in the probe and hopes to resolve it without a lawsuit by the Justice Department, Gallagher said.
 
Justice officials met with sheriff's officials and leaders from the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison watchdog group that monitors conditions at the jail, in separate meetings on March 27 in Chicago's federal courthouse.
 
Malcolm Young, executive director of the John Howard Association, said he was not aware of any major problems recently at the jail over the use of excessive force by correctional officers.
 
It was unclear how far back the Justice Department would look into brutality allegations at the jail. In 2004 a special Cook County grand jury concluded that high-ranking sheriff's officials covered up the 1999 beatings of dozens of inmates by an elite squad of guards. The U.S. attorney's office acknowledged opening a criminal investigation three years ago into that incident, but no charges have been brought.
 
Young and others are far more concerned about the impact of recent county budget cuts on jail medical services a.
 
The budget cuts "raised very substantial constitutional issues," said Ben Wolf, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "They might very well endanger the safety of inmates."
 
A John Howard report issued last week called the cutbacks "draconian" and warned a class-action lawsuit against the county for failing to provide constitutionally adequate health care at the jail "may be imminent."
 
The jail has been under the watchful eyes of the court-ordered monitor John Howard Association since 1982 because of overcrowded conditions. Last year the jail housed an average of 9,360 inmates -- most of them detainees awaiting trial. Hundreds still sleep on mattresses on the floor because of overcrowding in certain divisions.
 
Even before the latest budget cuts, a nationally recognized program at the jail that screens incoming inmates for sexually transmitted diseases was curtailed. Annual physical exams for hundreds of inmates incarcerated for more than a year at the jail were also eliminated.
 
In January, about half of the full-time physicians, including the medical director and the jail's three other top doctors, were fired by e-mail with virtually no notice, the watchdog group said. By February the National Commission on Correctional Health Care suspended accreditation for medical services at the jail, citing the dismissals of the four top doctors.
 
The 2007 budget cuts sliced funding for medical services at the jail further, resulting in dental care being virtually eliminated and many on-site medical services and procedures being either sharply reduced or discontinued, the John Howard Association said.
 
Dr. Eileen Couture, interim chair of correctional medicine at the jail's Cermak Health Services since January, acknowledged that the budget cuts reduced medical spending at the jail by 17 percent for 2007.
 
But Couture contended that layoffs were concentrated in support services -- such as secretaries, health educators and social workers -- and not front-line physicians. She said others have assumed the roles of the four top administrators let go in January.
 
Calling the probe by the Justice Department "an audit," Couture said she is looking forward to the evaluation.
 
"We deliver great care at the jail," she said.
 
Gallagher said Dart is concerned about cuts in medical services at the jail but doesn't concede that its medical care is constitutionally inadequate.
 
Gallagher noted that the County Board, not the sheriff's office, controls spending on medical services at the jail.


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