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Feds announce deal to improve Cook County Jail conditions
Agreement may end consent decree in 1974 inmate lawsuit

Friday, May 14, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Matthew Walberg and Hal Dardick

Federal authorities announced a formal agreement Thursday with Cook County officials to improve conditions at the county jail, including hiring hundreds of corrections officers and bringing in independent monitors with broad powers.

Among the highlights of the agreement are measures to properly investigate allegations by inmates of excessive force by staff and to provide improved medical and mental health care, the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago said in announcing the agreement.

The agreement is the result of months of negotiations among the county, the sheriff's department and the federal government following a blistering report by the Department of Justice in 2008 that castigated the sheriff and the county for squalid and unsafe conditions at what was once the largest single-site jail in the nation.

A succession of federal judges have kept a watch over the West Side jail since 1974 when inmates filed a class-action lawsuit — which led to what is known as the Duran consent decree — because of overcrowding and other problems. The jail currently houses about 9,000 inmates a day.

Thursday's agreement needs the approval of a federal judge and gives the county up to four years to comply with its provisions.

It calls for the sheriff to hire more than 600 corrections officers by March. The County Board approved that plan two months ago. The agreement also calls on the sheriff to improve measures to identify excessive use of force by staff.

Cermak Hospital must build a clinic to treat prisoners and beef up physical and psychiatric care for inmates, while the county's Department of Facilities Management will be responsible for increased safety and cleanliness of the jail.

Four court-appointed monitors will have authority over corrections, medical and mental health care as well as the physical plant, and issue status reports to the court every six months.

Lawyers involved in the Duran lawsuit said Thursday's agreement, which included the filing of another federal lawsuit, could soon result in the end of that nearly 36-year court fight.

The sheriff's office has long complained that the Duran decree held it accountable for things beyond its control, including budgetary matters under the County Board's purview and health care, the responsibility of the county Health and Hospitals System. The sheriff also contends many of the requirements in the new agreement have already been addressed or are in the process of being implemented.

"We welcome an agreement that allows us to dissolve the costly, 35-year-old Duran consent decree and which properly recognizes the sheriff can only be responsible for corrections issues, laying responsibility for medical care and maintenance at the feet of the (Health and Hospitals System) and the board president, respectively," Sheriff Tom Dart said in a statement Thursday.

mwalberg@tribune.com

hdardick@tribune.com



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