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Federal probe rips Cook County Jail

Friday, July 18, 2008
Southtown Star
by MIKE ROBINSON

A 17-month federal investigation of the nation's largest single-site county jail has uncovered serious sanitation and medical care problems as well as violence directed against prisoners who clashed with guards or failed to follow commands, officials said Thursday.

Three Cook County Jail inmates took their own lives in the first four months of 2008, and others have died because of inadequate medical care, according to a 98-page report prepared by the civil rights division of the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office.

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald praised county officials for cooperating by providing investigators with unfettered access to the jail.

But the official with direct responsibility for the sprawling, 96-acre complex, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, was sharply critical of the report - the latest in decades of warnings that the facility is overcrowded and unsafe.

Dart's office said in a statement that the investigation had uncovered problems and would serve "as a roadmap to address operational deficiencies and improve conditions at Cook County Jail for inmates and staff alike."

But the sheriff's office said the report "relies on inflammatory language and draws conclusions based on anecdotes and hearsay from inmates."

"The report's allegations of systemic violations of civil rights at the jail are categorically rejected by the sheriff's office," the response said. It said the national jail suicide rate is 24 times that of Cook County Jail and use of force is down 22 percent in the first half of 2008.

But Fitzgerald said Thursday that "a culture of abuse" exists, with groups of guards conducting organized beatings of inmates in retaliation for verbal insults. Prisoners also were not protected against violence from other inmates, he said.

"The Cook County Jail has an obligation to provide conditions of confinement that do not offend the Constitution and take reasonable measures to protect inmates from harm," the city's top federal prosecutor said during a news conference. "This investigation clearly found that the jail failed that test."

Fitzgerald warned that the federal government could file a civil lawsuit to force the county to mend dismal conditions at the jail if it delays in doing so. But he said that thus far jail officials have been cooperative.

The report said violence directed against prisoners sometimes begins as soon as they arrive at the sprawling complex on Chicago's West Side, where more than 9,000 inmates are housed while awaiting criminal trials.

"Many inmates report that those who are old, mentally ill or do not understand English are struck by officers for undressing or dressing too slowly," the report said. One prisoner who had trouble complying with orders from guards complained that they used his head as "a bongo drum."

Inadequate staffing and supervision sometimes forced the jail to keep prisoners in their cells for long periods, the report said.

"Moreover, deficient maintenance in many cells (no lighting, plumbing failures, etc.) resulted in inhumane conditions for an extended lockdown," the report said. It said that overcrowding at the jail has resulted in "hot bunking," in which prisoners use beds in eight-hour shifts.

The report said that although each inmate uses his or her own bedding, the practice still could cause "sanitation and infection control problems." It said skin infections have not been adequately controlled.

Fitzgerald told reporters the jail has only one dentist for 9,800 prisoners and that 25 percent of tooth extractions result in infection.

Inmate-on-inmate violence has been a persistent problem, according to the report, including a number of prisoners stabbed, one fatally, with knifelike shanks and another strangled by a cellmate.

"Due to the dilapidated condition of scores of cells, shower areas and various dayroom features, inmates have ample material for fabricating weapons," the report said.

It said that in one instance, inmates had rigged a dumbwaiter that may have been used to move weapons from tier to tier.

The report also cited "a serious narcotics problem" at the jail. Between January and June of last year, sheriff's officials opened about 110 cases involving illegal drugs in the jail.

Investigators also said it is common for prisoners to start fires in their cells to warm food, using empty milk cartons and other debris for fuel and light fixtures as an ignition source.

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's office issued a statement saying the county administration "is concerned regarding the findings of the report" but that the document did not address all of the steps taken to improve recent conditions in recent months.



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