With the number of inmates at Cook County Jail falling below 9,000,
Sheriff Tom Dart said he has shuttered one building and will soon close
another, saving up to an estimated $15 million a year and easing
Surrounded by rows of empty metal bunk beds in closed Division 2, Dart
told reporters he believed this marked the first time ever that the
sprawling West Side jail had been downsized. The closings lower the
jail's capacity to about 9,100, down some 900 beds.
A construction binge took place in the early to mid-1990s after the
jail population soared, forcing hundreds of inmates to sleep on
mattresses on the floor and leading to a public-safety nightmare as
many inmates won quick release on signature bonds to ease overcrowding.
Until recently, the complex near the Criminal Courts Building at 26th
Street and California Avenue had been the nation's largest single-site
jail for years. The number of inmates peaked at more than 11,000 in
2002 and has steadily declined since 2004 to about 8,600, Dart said. A
jail in Texas is now bigger, he said.
The sheriff said a drop in arrests, particularly in Chicago, was the
principal reason for the jail's population decline. Its annual intake
plummeted 18.6 percent from 2004 through 2009, he said. Arrests by
Chicago police account for about four-fifths of the jail's detainees.
Overcrowding has been an endemic problem at the jail for more than
three decades, forcing a series of federal judges to keep a watchful
eye over operations. Dart is under pressure to boost staffing after
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall ordered the county to hire an
additional 210 corrections officers and fill nearly 300 vacant
With the closings of the two buildings, Dart said about 175
correctional officers will be reassigned elsewhere in the jail, a move
he hopes will satisfy part of the judge's order. Earlier this week, the
County Board approved other hirings as well.
Dart said Division 2, a 55-year-old building that once served as a
kitchen, will be converted into a cafeteria. Division 3, which was
built in 1973, will be mothballed but kept ready to handle any uptick
"We have no delusions that this is going to be the case forever, but we
feel comfortable with what we're building into this, that we are going
to be able to maintain this and to keep some of these divisions closed,
some hopefully forever," he said.