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NATO kept jail crowded

Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

A slowdown in court activity during the NATO Summit contributed to a spike in the number of inmates being held in the Cook County Jail, according to the sheriff's office.

Prisoners who normally would have been sent to prison, released on bond or freed when their cases were dismissed stayed in jail waiting for a hearing scheduled after the May 19-20 summit, said Frank Bilecki, a spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart.

Nearly 9,500 inmates were in the jail after the weekend summit - about 150 more than a week earlier, Bilecki said.

The recent jump in the jail population comes on top of a yearlong increase. The jail housed 8,800 prisoners in May 2011. The official capacity is 9,361 inmates.

Dart recently opened a building that had been mothballed for more than two years to accommodate the additional prisoners, Bilecki said.

Dart hopes to work with the county president's office and the chief judge's office to come up with solutions for reducing the jail population, Bilecki said.

On Friday, Chief Judge Timothy Evans said he couldn't comment on how the court slowdown may have affected the jail population until he studied the issue.

Evans said he had urged judges to try to limit the number of cases that might result in prisoners being transferred. He was concerned that sheriff's deputies who transport prisoners might be needed for other duties involving protests.

Evans emphasized that he sent that recommendation to judges based on a request from the sheriff's office. But sheriff's officials said they thought the discussions pertained to the Daley Center and not the entire court system.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, meanwhile, had instructed her prosecutors not to schedule cases involving "in-custody defendants" from May 14 to May 23.

As a result of the court slowdown, about 2,500 cases were called for hearings in the Cook County court system from May 16 to May 23 - compared with about 4,700 cases in the same period of 2011.

The sheriff is concerned about the rise in the jail population for several reasons, Bilecki said. Each inmate costs $143 to house each day, not including other expenses such as health-care costs.

Also, when the population exceeds capacity, there aren't enough beds for every prisoner. The jail resorts to having prisoners sleep on mattresses on floors.

Rising tensions during overcrowding can cause security problems and can require overtime pay for the jail staff, Bilecki added.

In 2002, overcrowding was so bad that then-Sheriff Michael Sheahan threatened to put inmates in tents. The jail population topped 11,000 and more than 1,200 inmates were sleeping on the floor at the time.
Cook County Jail's inmate population was up because of a court slowdown during the NATO Summit. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times Brian Jackson

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