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Boot camp inmates put to work demolishing blighted buildings

Thursday, June 12, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by Frank Main

Cook County inmates are now helping knock down abandoned buildings in the south suburbs.

For about eight months, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has required boot camp inmates to participate in a job-training program in which they help demolish blighted structures, said Cara Smith, executive director of the Cook County Jail.

The inmates have continued to participate in military drills intended to instill discipline. But since November, they’ve also been knocking down buildings in Ford Heights and Robbins, Smith said.

“Without any real evidence that this military-style programming has had an impact on recidivism, we have refocused the program on vocational skills utilized in neighborhood restoration,” she said.

Boot camp came under scrutiny last year when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that judges were improperly sentencing armed robbers and other violent felons to the decades-old program for nonviolent offenders.

Since then, the sheriff’s office has reviewed the sentences of inmates entering the camp and checked with judges when those sentences appear improper. Dart also boosted oversight at the jail and suspended employees he felt weren’t doing enough to monitor boot-camp inmates after they were placed on supervision.

Because of the controversy, legislators introduced a bill this year to do away with boot camp, but it’s been stuck in committee.

Meanwhile, the number of inmates in boot camp has gradually dwindled, Smith said. Up to 150 inmates at a time have been in the boot camp in the past. Currently, though, there are only 22.

Dart sent a letter to judges last week encouraging them to send more inmates to boot camp — touting the program’s new mission and emphasizing that he’s improved oversight.

In the past, boot camp inmates lived for four months in the jail near 26th and California. Then they went on electronic monitoring for a month. Finally, they underwent drug testing for the remaining seven months of their year-long sentences.

Now they live on the jail grounds for six months and must be on electronic monitoring for the remainder of their supervision.

The inmates participate in the neighborhood restoration projects in the last two months they’re living on the jail grounds, Smith said. But they’re still required to continue to participate in the demolition projects after they are released on supervision, she said.

The boot-camp inmates have been moved from their old barracks to a new building on the jail complex, Smith said.

Dart plans to use the old barracks for a mental-health treatment program for inmates who’ve been released on electronic monitoring or are in the jail’s day-reporting program. The mental-health treatment program is expected to start in mid-July, Smith said.

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