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Justice Department sets terms to end jail oversight

Friday, May 14, 2010
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Pat Milhizer

The Cook County Jail is a step closer to being free from federal oversight, under an agreement between the federal government and the county that the U.S. Department of Justice filed Thursday in federal court.

For the county, this has been a long time coming.

In 1974, a group of inmates protested crowded jail conditions by filing a federal class-action lawsuit against the sheriff. The result was a court order — the Duran consent decree — that dictates how the sheriff must control the jail population, in part to ensure that inmates don't have to sleep on floors.

In paving a path to end the Duran decree, the DOJ agreement mandates new procedures to address concerns raised in a 2008 federal investigation that determined the jail systematically violated the constitutional rights of inmates.

That investigation found instances of jail staff using excessive force against inmates and failing to protect them from harm by other inmates. The probe also concluded that the staff didn't provide adequate medical or mental care, leading to several inmate deaths.

Though the new agreement focuses on problems at the jail, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart has expected and wanted it.

"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 bureau of health and board president, respectively," Dart said in a statement.

Dart was referring to the fact that if the deal is approved by U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall, the Duran decree would end. Then, federal oversight would be temporary and focus on the county departments that are responsible for each of the three aspects of running the facility: inmate control, building maintenance and inmate health care.

Instead of monitoring the sheriff for all of the conditions of the jail, federal authorities would monitor only the sheriff for how his office handles the inmate population. The County Board president would be monitored for facility maintenance, and the county health system would be scrutinized for the medical treatment of inmates.

The agreement requires the sheriff's office to hire 448 new correctional officers and have them on duty by the end of the year. An additional 174 correctional officers must be added to the staff by March 30, 2011.

The sheriff also has to install more video cameras to the common areas of the jail and conduct more inspections to find contraband and weapons in jail cells. In addition, inmates who are hurt by staff must have their injuries photographed.

Staff at the jail hospital must develop policies to ensure that inmates receive constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care, including suicide prevention.

"We are pleased that with the cooperation of Sheriff Dart and the county, we have achieved a rigorous, comprehensive agreement that will remedy the unconstitutional conditions that were found at the Cook County Jail," U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in a statement. "Inmates are entitled to conditions of confinement that pass constitutional muster."

To ensure that the county complies with the agreement, four independent monitors will be appointed. The sheriff, the County Board president and the health department could be free from federal oversight if they maintain compliance with the new deal for 18 months.

In his statement, Dart said one of his top goals since taking office in 2006 was to figure out how to free the jail from the Duran consent decree.

"My next goal," Dart said, "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."

As of Friday, no date had been set for Kendall to consider the new agreement.

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