Justice Dept. rips conditions at Cook Co. Jail

July 17, 2008 3:50:53 PM PDT
A scathing review was released Thursday about conditions at the Cook County Jail. Federal authorities say inmates there have been subjected to violence and poor medical care. They claim the jail does not meet minimum constitutional standards. The report follows a 17-month-long investigation.The report does credit the Cook County Sheriff's office with quickly resolving some of the problems at the jail, which is the largest single site county jail in the country.

The feds found conditions at the county jail violate inmates' constitutional rights. The report details inmate accounts of beatings at the hands of guards, rodent infestation and woefully inadequate medical care that has actually led to suicide. The obstacle to reform: cost and culture.

It's jail. It's not supposed to feel like a five-star hotel, but a new federal report finds conditions in Cook County's lock-up can be inhumane.

"There's mice running freely through the jail cells and the hallways. It's hard. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," said Aida Trevino, recently released inmate.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division began investigating conditions at the Jail last year. They found "life threatening deficiencies in sanitation and safety measures." and "multiple preventable inmate deaths and a preventable amputation, due to inadequate medical care."

"If you read the papers correctly we pay more taxes in Cook County than anywhere else in the country. We can't be the only county in the country that can't afford to have a jail that satisfies constitutional standards," said Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney.

The U.S. attorney saved his harshest criticism for corrections officers. Federal investigators interviewed one jail supervisor who frankly acknowledged what he called "a culture of abusing inmates."

They documented several inmate beatings at the hands of guards that resulted in "blunt trauma," "teeth knocked loose" and "stitches." One inmate had to have his "jaw wired shut" as part of treatment.

"There's clearly examples of corrections officers in organized groups beating inmates to retaliate for verbal abuse and people going to the hospital for it. It's got to stop," said Fitzgerald.

"The only thing they acknowledge is that we're a complete open book here," said Tom Dart, Cook County Sheriff.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart runs the jail and says the report is horribly incomplete and doesn't acknowledge progress made in screening out violence-prone corrections officers.

"We have psychological exams, lie detector tests. So in the area of concerns about officers on inmates, we are leap years ahead of a lot of institutions and leap years ahead of where we were a year and a half ago when I came in," said Dart.

Independent jail monitor Charlie Fasano says the federal report has unearthed decades-old problems caused by under-staffing and under-funding.

"Conditions of the facilities and the level of crowding, which right now is much better than it's been in a very long time, but there's no guarantee that will stay that way," said Charles Fasano, John Howard Association.

The sheriff says computers now track excessive force complaints against guards and a network of 1,000 cameras will be up and running in the next two years to keep an eye on everyone's conduct.

There are real questions, though, about whether the feds have any teeth on this matter. After all, court orders covering everything from food to sleeping arrangements have been in place for decades.


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