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Cook County fail?
'YOU HAVE A PROBLEM' | Sheriff rejects findings of U.S. attorney's probe that cites medical negligence, abusive behavior by jail guards

Friday, July 18, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times
by NATASHA KORECKI

Unnecessary deaths and amputation, grossly inadequate medical care and routine inmate beatings.

Those are some of the disturbing findings at the Cook County Jail after a 17-month civil review by the U.S. attorney's office, which is considering criminal charges against some jail guards.

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald cited anecdote after anecdote of medical negligence, mismanagement and abusive behavior by guards at the jail.

In one case, an inmate left untreated for a gunshot wound developed sepsis and died. One man's leg was amputated after complaints about pains in his bandaged leg went ignored. Guards allegedly beat another man, kicking out his dentures and sending him to the hospital on a respirator.

Just one dentist serves 9,800 inmates, and he only deals in extractions. Twenty five percent of those resulted in infection, the report says.

"When you're talking about unnecessary amputations and deaths -- you have a problem," Fitzgerald said.

The findings were laid out in a 98-page letter delivered to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and Sheriff Thomas Dart last Friday.

U.S. prosecutors can now force correction of deficiencies at the jail.

Fitzgerald called on officials at the jail, sheriff's office and County Board to quickly remedy wide-scale problems at the nation's largest single-site county jail.

Dart took great exception to the report, saying it ignored sweeping, significant changes he put in place. Dart hired the onetime No. 2 Chicago FBI official, Joseph Ways, to weed out problem officers.

"They have completely ignored all the positive things we've done and painted a picture that is in no way accurate and is horribly disappointing," Dart said. "At the end of the day, I find it to be horribly unprofessional."

Dart said the federal team spent only 10 days at the jail. "You look at this [report], you think we're running a Motel 6, and this is a Boy Scout jamboree," Dart said. "We have some of the most violent people in the county, if not the country."

Dart said the county, and not the jail, should shoulder the blame for medical negligence. The county runs Cermak Hospital. Hospital representatives cite a shrinking budget and significant cuts in staff.

Lack of money, Fitzgerald said, isn't an excuse. "We pay more taxes here than anywhere in the country," Fitzgerald said. "It can't be the only county in the country that can't afford to have a jail that satisfies constitutional standards."

The report found a culture among guards that fostered beatings to the point of hospitalization when inmates talked back or rebuffed orders. Many of the beatings brought lawsuits and costly settlements.

Attorney Richard Dvorak, whose firm is handling four cases involving 15 inmates -- including some referenced in the report -- said federal scrutiny is a long time coming.

"I believe Cook County authorities have shown they are incapable of policing themselves," he said.

Papers filed in one of those cases indicate a federal grand jury is considering criminal charges against some jail guards.

Chicago resident Brandon Sanders said he was released from the jail Thursday after 16 hours with no food.

"They treated us like animals -- less than animals. I wouldn't treat stray dogs the way they treat these inmates."

Contributing: Mark Konkol



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