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Cook County jail officials always on lookout for ‘shanks’

Wednesday, January 02, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by MITCH DUDEK

Once a month, Cook County Jail officials gather to discuss the county’s most secret and deadly do-it-yourself craft projects: jail shanks.

Twenty-one such homemade weapons — the bounty of jail searches in November — were passed around a conference table two weeks ago as Sheriff Tom Dart’s Weapons Free Committee took mental notes on what to keep an eye out for.

Each shank discussed during the meeting is bagged and marked. There’s a sharpened electrical outlet cover that was found in a lower-bunk mattress, as well as a shaving razor found in a Bible.

Then there’s a piece of flattened jagged metal barely discernible from its original form: a canister torn from an asthma inhaler. It’s the third shank of its kind to turn up in recent months.

“We need to talk to medical about that,” says Dan Moreci, first assistant executive director of the jail.

Inmates will injure themselves intentionally — sometimes in staged fights — so they can go to the medical wing and scavenge for shank-making materials, Moreci says. Or they just walk out with raw materials they need to make a shank in a crutch or a splint.

Shanks come in two varieties: slashers and pokers, adds Moreci, a former competitive body builder with icebox shoulders and 23 years on the job.

“The real big slashing weapons are for intimidation,” says Michael Holmes, the assistant jail director. “Pokers are the worst. They go in and out, and sometimes they don’t even bleed, but will catch a lung or a kidney.”

A committee member pauses on a poker made from a metal screw and begins to disassemble its crude grip: strips of fabric — probably torn from a uniform — tightly wound around a piece of unidentified brown cardboard.

“I think that’s from a roll of toilet paper,” somebody says, as a bottle of hand sanitizer — a ubiquitous commodity — slides down the table.

Like parents child-proofing their home, jail officials keep a list of mundane but potentially lethal objects that need to be purged: light fixture toggle bolts, old ceiling fans, metal pins on firehose casing. Folks from facilities management identify pieces of metal and plastic little known outside their trades.

But animosity coupled with ingenuity means shanks will never become extinct. Every jail cell is searched randomly once or twice a week.

Sheriff’s police also offer incentives — including cheeseburgers, Italian beef sandwiches, candy and potato chips — for jail informants to offer up information on where shanks are hidden.

The nervous face of an inmate whose cell is being searched is usually a dead giveaway that contraband is present.

Often cuffed to a nearby table, inmates watch as their mattresses are rolled up and bottles of shampoo and baby powder are shaken. A thorough search can last 20 minutes, aided by a metal detector, flashlights, cameras that see around corners, and, if need be, dogs.

“Some are good and make you work for it, but most can’t play that poker face,” says Holmes, who’s searched thousands of cells. “I once found a poker hidden in summer sausage. I bent the sausage and it broke right through the meat.”

Regular hiding spots include under tables in day rooms — areas where inmates congregate — or inside mattresses and under desks or bed frames in cells.

Scratch marks on concrete cell floors — the telltale of crude shank sharpening methods — are common.

“But the shanks have to be found on them in order to charge them with possession, and they know that. Most of the time, they skate,” Moreci says. “If we find one in a cell, they laugh it off and say, ‘That’s not mine. That was here before I got here.’ ”

That excuse was not available when an inmate was found with a piece of sharpened plastic concealed under his testicles on Nov. 30.

The shank appeared on a full body X-ray machine — used every time an inmate enters the jail or is transferred between one of its 10 divisions — as a curiously dark shadow.

Punishment, apart from any criminal charges, includes the loss of commissary privileges and immediate transfer to a maximum-security cell where inmates who are used to at least eight hours of free time outside their cells get confined for all but one hour a day.

The total number of confiscated shanks is decreasing: 595 in 2009, 439 in 2010 and 270 in 2011.

And shank-related bloodshed has been cut in half or more since Dart created the Weapons Free Committee in 2007.

During his 28 years of keeping order at the jail, Holmes has seen shankings peak at 20 to 30 a year. There were no more than five during 2012, he said.

The latest was in August, when gang tensions boiled over and an inmate was stabbed in the abdomen several times. He survived.

In 2002, two inmates wielding shanks squared off in a maximum-security dayroom, causing a melee. One inmate was killed — the last fatality caused by a shank.

Shank violence aimed at correctional officers is rare, but it happens.

About six years ago, an officer was slashed near his mouth, requiring stitches, as he rushed into a cell with a special unit that conducts flash searches. “It was a status thing among inmates that he put up a fight,” Holmes says.

Cook County Jail is one of the nation’s largest.

As of Wednesday, 9,344 of the jail’s 9,795 beds were occupied.

Most shanks are found in maximum-security Division 9, where “problem inmates” are held, and Division 10, where inmates receive medical treatment.

The least likely place to find a shank: the women’s division.

“There really aren’t any shanks, there’s fighting and hair-pulling, but no shanks,” says the head of the division, who asked not to be named.



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