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Activists question plan to relieve Cook jail crowding
Group says proposal would hurt inmates

Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Michael Higgins

A court-appointed monitor has ripped Sheriff Tom Dart's plan to ease crowding at the Cook County Jail, saying it could increase the risk of suicide among mentally ill inmates.

Officials at the
John Howard Association say many of the jail's doctors and psychologists are extremely concerned about the plan, which would move some inmates with serious medical and psychiatric problems out of a dorm-style setting and into jail cells.

"They say many of these patients, because of their conditions, shouldn't be out of sight," Charles Fasano, director of the association's Prison and Jails Program, said in an interview.

Fasano said more than a half-dozen health-care personnel contacted him after learning of the sheriff's plan.

"Having somebody placed at risk of their lives," Fasano said. "That's my real concern."

In a March 25 letter to Dart obtained by the Tribune, John Howard officials also questioned whether the sheriff's plan to relocate inmates would provide enough privacy for female inmates when they shower or use the bathroom. They also criticized Dart's move to have some inmates share bunks on a voluntary basis.

John Howard officials filed the letter with U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, who is overseeing the decades-old civil rights litigation on jail crowding.

Kendall must decide whether the sheriff's plan is sufficient to comply with an 1982 consent decree.

A sheriff's lawyer fired back at the John Howard letter, arguing that it didn't take into account recent changes to the sheriff's plan.

"I have no idea why John Howard filed that letter," attorney Daniel Gallagher said. "It was premature."

Under the plan filed March 31, jail officials would move about 450 inmates from the dorm-style "residential treatment unit" to cells that will be part of a medical wing. They would then move female inmates into the residential treatment unit, freeing up space elsewhere.

Gallagher said the plan also calls for increased videotaping of inmates and more frequent checks on inmates with health problems.

He said that no plan can eliminate the risk that a mentally ill inmate will attempt suicide.

"Anybody who has a severe psychiatric problem should not be in the jail in the first place," Gallagher said. "They should be in the hospital."

Gallagher noted Dr. Robert Simon, interim chief of the Cook County Bureau of Health Services, which runs the jail's hospital, had signed off on the plan.

But Fasano said this week he's still not convinced that the current plan does enough. His group would like to see larger cell windows, guards better positioned to observe inmates, designated 'crisis' cells and other modifications.

"You can call it a medical wing." Fasano said. But without changes "it's not a safe medical wing."

Fasano said that it was irrelevant that Simon signed off on the plan. As a top supervisor, "he's about nine levels removed from the action here," Fasano said.

Gallagher disagreed, saying the jail hospital officials work for Simon.

Lawyers for the inmates are pushing for Dart to put more inmates awaiting trial on electronic monitoring, which they see as a better long-term solution than moving inmates to different parts of the facility.

The John Howard letter "is very significant," said Locke Bowman, an attorney for the inmates, who are set to file their own response to the sheriff's plan next week. "Howard is a neutral player. They may well be reflecting concerns that are being raised in the jail and not being listened to by the jail administrators. It should be a red flag."

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