Expert: Cook County Jail one of the most dangerous in country
Thursday, October 09, 2014
Chicago Tribune by Steve Schmadeke
Detainees at the Cook County Jail face such an "extremely high" risk of harm that the facility is one of the most dangerous in the country, a national expert on jail operations testified Wednesday, saying "serious failures" in staff leadership are exacerbating the problem.
The testimony by Jeffrey A. Schwartz came during a hearing on a civil lawsuit brought by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University that alleges a culture of brutality exists inside two of the jail's maximum-security divisions.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall is holding a hearing on the center's request for a preliminary injunction to stop the violence to inmates by other prisoners as well as correctional officers.
Nearly 90 inmates gave sworn statements as part of the federal litigation, some of whom alleged they were beaten by officers using handcuffs as brass knuckles. Schwartz wrote a separate report saying the violence inside Divisions 9 and 10 of the jail — the largest single-site jail in the country — is among the worst he's seen.
A video played in federal court Wednesday shows a detainee in a yellow jumpsuit bent over at the waist and crying out as a sheriff's deputy lifts the man's handcuffed hands above his head as he led him to an elevator. Schwartz called the action "an "extremely painful and dangerous hold."
The hand-held camera then captures an officer kneeing the inmate in the face, Schwartz testified. "There is no justification of any sort for that use of force," he said.
Schwartz testified that documents filed after the incident showed that neither the watch commander nor shift supervisor did anything to discipline the officers involved.
"They were not going to hold the staff accountable for this incident," Schwartz said, part of what he called a "deep-seated and ubiquitous code of silence" at the jail.
Since 1980, the often overcrowded jail has been run under a consent decree with oversight by a series of federal judges — Kendall being the latest.
Sheriff Tom Dart has vigorously disputed the allegations in the lawsuit, which he previously called a "fictitious novel" and noted that five of the named plaintiffs in the case were being held on first-degree murder charges.
Schwartz — who toured the jail, interviewed inmates and reviewed reports as part of his research — said even the protective custody system at the jail is flawed. Since inmates can sign themselves into protective custody at any time, it can actually be more dangerous than the jail's general population areas, he testified.
Inmates who want to attack another detainee may be held on different tiers, but if their target goes into protective custody, they can sign themselves in to gain better access to him, Schwartz said.
"It creates a situation that's the opposite of what's intended," he said
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