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Two Reality Shows Lift Veil on Cook County Jail

Monday, December 14, 2009
by Alex Parker

A cop sits next to a gangbanger in handcuffs and eyes him up and down.

“On a give and take, if I’m selling the drugs out there, is it mandatory that somebody in that area’s got a pistol on for protection?” he asks.

“Always,” the inmate replies.

“Is it a gun or does he have somebody else posted on the windows, on top of the roof?”

“It could be all of the above. It could be assault rifles. It could be anything,” the inmate says.

The officer, having gotten the information he needs, cracks a smile. Then the inmate identifies a drug ring’s kingpin.

Sounds like something out of “The Wire,” right?

But this happened at Cook County Jail, and was filmed as part of an MSNBC documentary series called “The Squeeze.” The show, premiering Jan. 1, follows members of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, which culls sources inside the jail to help fight crime.

Though the walls of Cook County Jail are foreboding and its interior filled with some of Chicago’s worst criminals, Sheriff Tom Dart wants to show the public what goes on, warts and all. Dart is using reality television – the MSNBC program and a Discovery Channel show, “Cook County Jail,” which debuted earlier this month – to do that.

“We have nothing to hide. We have everything to be proud of what we’re trying to do here. And that’s what all this is about, to let people know that,” Dart says.

The approach by the media-savvy Dart, who has won national attention for his efforts, including cracking down on prostitution on Craigslist and halting evictions, represents a change for the sheriff’s department, which has been saddled with a decades-long reputation for questionable hires, civil rights violations, bribery and corruption.

In the 1980s, Sheriff James O’Grady — pledging reform — rewarded unqualified supporters with 450 law enforcement jobs. His undersheriff served prison time for taking bribes from the mob.

More recently, the department’s elite special operations unit was accused of administering mass beatings to prisoners, and a federal judge found jail staff had been unconstitutionally strip-searching inmates.

The jail has for years been under federal court oversight because of overcrowding.

The shows come at an interesting time for Dart, who is running for reelection. But the timing is coincidental, he says. After the production companies submitted the programs to the networks, it was up to executives to determine when they would air.

Dart says the programs won’t promote him.

“It’s not about the ‘Tom Dart Show.’ I don’t need it. This is to tell them about the jail and what goes on there,” he says. He has minimal exposure in the shows.

“The Squeeze” follows CIU officers as they interact with inmates, work with them to get information in exchange for plea bargains, and observe gang leadership hierarchies inside the jail.

While the public may just see the jail as a scary place, Dart says he allowed cameras in “to tell people what our story is and to get the people working here the respect they deserve.”

The shows, he says, act as a tribute to correctional officers who work in dangerous and stressful jobs.

And while they portray the sometimes harrowing situations that occur in the jail, these reality shows serve a different purpose. They’re opening up a cloistered and secretive place that most people never see, and exposing to the masses an agency that has traditionally revered privacy.

“Opening it up was a very well-thought out …operation on our part because I really feel that we have nothing to hide here and we have a lot of things to be proud of,” Dart says of the public relations offensive.

Melissa Cutlip, vice president of development for 20 West Productions, which produced “The Squeeze,” says the department offered full access.

“I think we had as free of access as we could, while still respecting a) we were in the middle of ongoing law enforcement operations, and b) the people in the jail are innocent until proven guilty,” she says.

Charles Fasano, director of the prisons and jails program for the corrections watchdog John Howard Association, says the jail is worthy of attention.

“I think it’s an excellent idea because I think the public has not only a right, but an obligation to know. To get rid of the rumors, ‘Oh, it’s a hellhole, it’s a country club,’” he says.

But there are concerns that creating a compelling television series requires skewing events to make them entertaining.

“You’re not going to see one hour of police filling out forms,” says David Perlmutter, director of the University of Iowa’s journalism school and author of “Policing the Media: Street Cops and Public Perceptions of Law Enforcement.”

Another challenge is changing negative perceptions of police, which Perlmutter says are overexposed on the news and in entertainment.

“Most of us see the blue and the badge,” he says. “These reality shows aren’t statistical reality. They are edited, but they do remind us of something very important. Police are human beings.”

That’s one of Dart’s main goals, and he says the shows have impacted officers’ families already.

He says people have told him, “‘They didn’t realize it’s that bad. They want me to retire as soon as I hit my pension date.’ So it was even family members that didn’t understand what our employees were doing.”

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Patterson says there have been talks of filming another program that will follow reformed prostitutes employed by the county, who work to get other women off the streets.

“The Squeeze” debuts on MSNBC at 9 p.m. on Jan. 1. “Cook County Jail” currently airs on the Discovery Channel.

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