Faulty doors at Cook County Jail let inmates fight each otherDANGER CELLS | Escapes unlikely, but faulty doors let inmates fight each other
Sunday, November 01, 2009
by Frank Main and Chris Fusco
A Sun-Times/BGA Investigation: Accused murderers, robbers and
rapists in Cook County Jail's oldest maximum-security complex often use
toothpaste caps and toilet paper to jam their cell doors and sneak out.
Sometimes, they don't even need to resort to such tricks. The aging locks in the doors malfunction on their own.
"Some of them are so bad they can literally slide the door, give the
door a little jiggle, and it will slide open," a Cook County sheriff's
correctional officer said.
Between February 2007 and last May, there have been at least 288
problems with jail doors in the 608-cell complex called Division 1, a
Chicago Sun-Times/Better Government Association investigation has found.
A Cook County sheriff's spot check about a year ago showed that 69
cell doors in the division -- more than 11 percent -- were "found to be
not closing properly, with the potential for being breached," records
Those doors have been fixed, officials said. But problems continue.
And they aren't limited to cell doors. County records show stairwell,
corridor and tunnel doors have been malfunctioning, too -- though not
with the same frequency as cell doors.
"It's Jail 101: The doors ought to lock," said Charles Fasano of the
John Howard Association, a watchdog group that monitors the jail under
a federal court order.
County officials said they're trying to fix the problem through
repairs and a new security strategy. Division 1, which opened in 1929,
is unique because its cell doors slide open, rather than swinging on
hinges like the 3,168 cells in the jail's other 10 divisions.
"Guys have figured out that using a cap from a tube of toothpaste
with a piece of paper" can keep cell doors open while making it "look
like they're locked on the [electronic] panel," Fasano said.
The concern isn't so much about inmates escaping -- they would need
to go through three more sets of locked doors before they would even
reach a hallway -- but about gang fights. In August, rival gang members
in Division 1 left their cells and began stabbing each other with
Inmates told sheriff's investigators the correctional officer on
duty pushed a button to unlock all the cell doors at the same time, an
error that led to the melee. But the officer insisted he didn't open
the locked doors simultaneously and that the inmates must have done it
on their own.
Another officer, as well as an inmate involved in the fight, told
the Sun-Times that malfunctioning doors contributed to the problems
Of the 288 reports of door malfunctions, 245 involved cell doors.
They included 129 reports of cell doors not locking, being off-track or
otherwise "broken." Another 112 involved problems with electronic
panels and switches that control the doors.
A few years ago, similar problems surfaced in the jail's other
maximum-security complex, Division 9, Fasano said. In one case, in
February 2006, correctional officers were doing an inspection when they
found a cell door open and a playing card jammed in the lock, according
to a sheriff's office report. An inmate in the cell got combative when
questioned and punched one of the officers in the face.
In August, the sheriff's office launched a new security strategy to
deal with faulty doors. Correctional officers must now double-check a
panel that tells them whether cells are open or locked. And they go
cell-to-cell to check, sheriff's spokesman Steve Patterson said.
Last year, the county spent more than $70,000 to fix more than 70 doors in Division 1.
A $350,000 contract is pending to replace worn-out parts in the
locks in another 533 cells, said James D'Amico, director of the
county's Facilities Management Department.
In the last four years, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs the
jail, has gotten about $4.5 million from the county for door and frame
replacements in Divisions 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10, Patterson said.
"The sheriff is, in a sense, a tenant, and the County Board
president is the landlord," Patterson said. "We have absolutely no
control of the maintenance of the facility. It's a strange setup -- and
one the sheriff is not happy about."
D'Amico meets once a week with sheriff's officials about door
repairs that are needed. He said his staff is doing its best despite
having a budget that's been slashed from $3.5 million to $1.5 million
since 2003 and a staff that's gone from 470 to 370 over the same period.
A federal judge overseeing jail conditions has ordered the county to
hire more facilities management staff but has not said how many yet,
The same judge has ordered Dart to hire more than 200 correctional officers to bolster jail security.