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Feds to Cook County: Clean up the Jail

Friday, July 18, 2008
Chicago Public radio

The federal government is putting new pressure on old problems that have plagued the Cook County Jail. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice finds that conditions at the facility violate the civil rights of the inmates housed there. And the threat of a lawsuit by the DOJ's civil rights division is a weighty hammer hanging over the head of jail administrators.

With nearly 10,000 inmates crowded onto 96 acres, the cook county jail is like it's own town.

FASANO: It's a good sized town of belligerent, sick people.

Charles Fasano is with the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group. For years, decades actually, federal judges have been watching and trying to make things better at Cook County Jail. The judges rely on Fasano's group to paint an impartial picture of what's going on in the facility. And Fasano says the county hasn't been doing well.

FASANO: They think they can run a jail on the cheap, they can't.

FITZGERALD: When you're talking about unnecessary amputations and deaths you have a serious problem.

That's U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. Yesterday he announced the findings of a year-and-a-half-long investigation into conditions at the jail and what they found is not good, like medical care that's so bad people have gotten unnecessary amputations. And the buildings are falling apart leading in a strange way to violence. The reports says, "inmates have ample material for fabricating weapons, including floor tiles, metal from light fixtures, metal from the ventilation system." It goes on. Fitzgerald says the jail is overcrowded and there are staffing shortages, some of the staff they do have abuse the inmates.

FITZGERALD: There's clearly examples of corrections officers in organized groups beating inmates to retaliate for verbal abuse and people going to the hospital for it.

All of this is outlined in a 98 page letter that the justice department sent last week to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

DART: There is just criticism after criticism overlooking all of the positive things we're doing.

If the jail is like a town, then Tom Dart is the mayor. When I talked to him yesterday he sounded like he was personally offended, even hurt, by the allegations in the federal report. He talked about how he spends 11 hours a day at the jail and reviews every instance of someone using a shank to stab someone. And he's got plans for the chaotic center where inmates are processed into the jail.

DART: Why is it not mentioned up front the receiving center is inadequate, the sheriff acknowledges that it's not right, they have a new plan in place, in the meantime they should do a, b, c, and d. I would be like okay, that sounds good we'll work on those a, b, c, and d's. But instead the language I get is just incredible.

WILDEBOER: But do you disagree with the general allegations that these problems exist and something needs to be done.

DART: What I disagree with is A, they way they framed it and the magnitude of what they're saying.

In the end Dart conceded he'd love to see all the issues raised by federal investigators solved. He says the big problem is going to be money. That's been one of the problems for a long time. Private civil rights attorneys who have been suing the county for decades have never been able to force it to really clean up the jail. But Fasano, with the jail watchdog group, says there's a difference between their lawsuits and the one that is portended by this recent federal investigation.

FASANO: They don't have extraordinarily deep pockets whereas the justice department, last time I looked, does have tremendous resources on this.

Fasano says in the most extreme scenario, a federal judge could takeover the jail, appoint an administrator and give the administrator a blank check signed by the county. With that kind of threat, the county is likely to cooperate but the back and forth negotiating could be drawn out for years.


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