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Jail's weekly stats: 42 fights, 11 shanks
Sheriff tries to keep order in dangerous place

Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times
by MARK BROWN

It's 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Cook County Jail, and outside along California Boulevard the guys sentenced to the sheriff's work alternative program circle some of the many fallen trees wiped out by the previous evening's thunderstorms. A chain saw whirs in the background.

Inside, the jail's top supervisors are gathered around a long conference table to give Sheriff Tom Dart a damage report of another sort -- the weekly tally of inmate mayhem. The whirring in here comes from two lousy window air conditioners straining against the early morning heat.

Dart has already seen the numbers:

Shanks recovered -- 11. Additional weapons found -- 1. Fights --4 2. Serious incidents excluding fights and fires -- 11. Fires -- none. Battery to staff with injuries -- 3. Inmate disciplinary reports -- 187. Use of force/response to resistance -- 6/2. Overtime hours -- 5,989.

Not a good week, as best as I can tell. Not a particularly bad one either.

Dart calls on his supervisors one by one for the details behind the stats.

Dennis Andrews, who presides over the jail's maximum security Division I, passes around a photocopy of a homemade knife -- or shank -- recovered from his unit.

Division I is the oldest part of the jail, but Andrews reports inmates have found a new hiding place for their weapons -- in a rail beneath the cells.

"They tie it with a piece of sheet and drop it down through there," he says.

Dart wants to know if this is becoming a big problem. Andrews says no.

"How many cells have that problem?" the sheriff follows up.

"Probably about 20 percent," Andrews says, but explains that now guards know where to look.

Division 1 had two fights in the past week, Andrews continues. The guy who took the brunt of one of them "said he was ATG," Andrews said, referring to Against The Grain, a group that has been gaining strength inside jails and prisons by challenging established gangs.

The ATG guy "didn't identify anybody," Andrews says. "He said he didn't know what happened."

Dart says to be sure to make the inmate sign a form giving his statement and to have it videotaped -- better for later defending the county in court if he files suit.

Andrews blames his record high total of 889 overtime hours in part on correctional officers calling in sick.

"We need to start firing some people," chimes in Tony Godinez, the jail's director.

"You get me the names. I'll sign the paperwork," Dart says.

And so it goes for the next 90 minutes.

Martha Salazar, superintendent in the minimum security Division II, reports eight fights. Although inmates in her wing of the jail are considered the least violent, the conditions in which they are held -- 200 crammed close together in a dormlike setting -- tends to breed altercations.

Seven of the fights were one-on-one, considered less serious, but in the eighth, the victim -- whose arms and face were swollen from an apparent beating -- identified four attackers.

"He stole from the commissary," Salazar explains, as the others nod knowingly. Other inmates apparently don't like it if you steal from the commissary.

William Thomas, who runs the jail's other highest security unit, Division IX, had eight shanks to report, including five very wicked-looking ones fashioned from sheet metal apparently stripped from the building's ductwork.

Also recovered during a search were shoe supports. The metal supports are typically removed from the arches of Timberland boots and made into weapons. The sheriff now takes away all inmates' shoes and gives them canvas footwear, but the jail ran out of the so-called "Air Darts" for a period and this is seen as confirmation that some more "dangerous" shoes slipped past during that time.

Another inmate was caught with three Allen wrenches that could have been used to remove screws from partitions in the visitors area, making it possible to pass drugs or other contraband.

Thomas also reports a security breach. A fire escape door was found unlocked -- and may have been that way for six days. During that time, inmates apparently snuck outside the door and scavenged a 2½-foot piece of metal from a sign, another potential weapon.

But this time there is a silver lining, they say. Another inmate, saying he didn't want any shanks in his tier, took away the metal from the offenders and threw it into the prison yard below, where it was recovered by a guard.

Dart, still smarting from a federal report last month highly critical of jail operations, seems to want people to know he takes the jail's problems seriously and has nothing to hide.

All I can tell you is that the jail is a very complicated and dangerous place.



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