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Jail horrors are a moral crime

Friday, July 18, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County Jail is a bleeding mess. That's the only conclusion you can arrive at after reading a 98-page report from the U.S. Justice Department on conditions at the facility, the largest county jail in the country.

Before getting into the meat of the findings, understand one critical fact:

The report, released Thursday by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, does not call for the county to turn the jail into a Ritz-Carlton. It does not recommend fluffy towels or a mint under each prisoner's pillow. It does not even call for conditions equivalent to a Motel 6.

The report simply says that prisoners should be housed in a safe and clean environment with a decent place to sleep and adequate medical care.

Nothing radical.

But even at these basic tasks, the county is failing.

Prisoners shouldn't get beaten bloody for mouthing off to a guard.

But that has happened time and again, according to the report, in what amounts to a culture of guards beating prisoners.

One man, arrested for driving on a suspended driver's license, got into an argument with an officer at the jail and found his head being used as a "bongo drum."

Another prisoner's jaw was broken after he was accused of planting contraband, according to the report.

Worse still, prisoners reported that guards threatened them with worse treatment if they reported the violence.

Health care at the jail hospital, run by the Cook County Health Bureau, also leaves much to be desired.

One prisoner's leg had to be amputated after staffers took too long to treat an infection.

Another inmate died from sepsis because a gunshot wound became infected after he came into the jail.

A female prisoner with HIV died from a preventable infection.

For all these problems, let's be honest: Few taxpayers like seeing their tax dollars spent on improving jail conditions.

It's easier to build jails, throw people inside, slam the door and forget about it.

It's easier to fall prey to our baser natures, to figure that most of the folks in County Jail are probably guilty of something anyway, so to heck with them.

But, as a civilized society, we are judged on how we treat our most powerless, least desirable citizens.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart understands that improvements need to be made at the jail.

He inherited much of the mess when he took office in December 2006 and has taken several smart steps to increase prison guard accountability and reduce inmate violence and overcrowding.

But to make real changes, he'll need the backing of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and the county commissioners.

The County Board can decide to spend the money and make the necessary changes as outlined in detail by the U.S. Justice Department.

Or the board can ignore the problem, and the feds can take the county to court.

The county could spend a ton of money on attorneys to fight the case, only to lose and be forced to make the changes anyway.

We know which option makes more sense to us.



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