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Sweeping deal to improve jail
Reforms to address decades of woes include hiring 600 more guards

Friday, May 14, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
by Natasha Korecki

Federal and county authorities announced Thursday they've reached a sweeping deal to settle decades-old problems at Cook County Jail by hiring 600 more guards, overhauling medical and mental health care and hiring monitors who will report progress to a judge.

The deal comes after a federal inquiry into conditions at the jail exposed widespread trouble -- including inmates who attacked one another, unnecessary inmate deaths, unnecessary amputations, grossly inadequate medical and dental care as well as inmate beatings by prison guards.

The inquiry found that in 2008, three jail inmates committed suicide in the first four months of the year.

The jail, the largest single-site county jail in the nation, with an average daily population of more than 8,500 inmates, has long been the subject of federal lawsuits and complaints, many tied to understaffing.

Thursday's agreement is designed to settle a newly filed federal lawsuit personally signed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The agreement comes after months of advance work between the U.S. attorney's office, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and other county officials.

"We have achieved a rigorous, comprehensive agreement that will remedy the unconstitutional conditions that were found at the Cook County Jail," said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. "Inmates are entitled to conditions of confinement that pass constitutional muster."

The "agreed order" still needs to be approved by a federal judge in Chicago.

Dart said that since he took his post in 2006, he's made it a priority to transform issues at the jail.

"My next goal is to build upon all that we've done so far at the jail so that after 18 months of compliance by my office, we will be able to publicly announce that decades of costly federal oversight at the Cook County Jail have finally come to an end," Dart said.

The order lays out provisions that jail staff must abide by. Four monitors have been appointed to keep tabs on whether the jail is in compliance. The monitors will file periodic reports to U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, who can assess fines if she finds any violations.

Once the jail is fully compliant and stays that way for 18 months, it will no longer need oversight, according to the order.

Among the new provisions:

• Four different monitors will oversee issues involving the jail, mental health and medical services.

• 448 new correctional officers will be hired by the end of 2010 and another 174 by March 30, 2011. Last year, the sheriff estimated a new guard's salary at $45,000.

• The county-run Cermak Hospital must put in place procedures to make sure there is constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care, including suicide prevention.

• The county must increase overhead video and recording cameras in jail common areas.

• Investigations will be automatically conducted into suspicious inmate injuries to reduce beatings by jail staff.

• All injuries suffered by inmates and staff will be photographed.

• Supervision in housing areas will be increased.

Contributing: Rummana Hussain and Lisa Donovan

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