Accidental release of Cook County inmates blamed on paperwork

The Cook County Sheriff says a few incorrect strokes on a piece of paper are all it takes to free the wrong inmate.
October 9, 2013 3:27:59 PM PDT
The Cook County Sheriff says a few incorrect strokes on a piece of paper are all it takes to free the wrong inmate. On Wednesday night, there's an update to an exclusive story ABC7 first reported in February, involving inmates mistakenly set free from the Cook County Jail.

Who's responsible for fixing it? That depends on who you ask. ABC7 has learned a resolution will be submitted to the county board on Thursday calling for a computer-based system for tracking inmates and whether they should be released. The jail's paper problem is nothing new. The fact that it's so old is the problem.

It's not keys that stand between an inmate and freedom but paper. Lots and lots of paper.

"When I leave every night and look at those 10,000 packs, I don't know what nightmare is laying there," said Michael Holmes, assistant director, Cook County Jail.

These stacks contain the files for each of the 10,000 inmates at the Cook County Jail. When an inmate returns from court, it's up to the sheriff's staff to interpret handwritten orders from a judge. This one says "release this case only." But the inmate had another case that required him to return to prison.

"This is for one person we have here in the jail, this is his paperwork," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. "Most people would say this is Tom doing a history tour of what it was like in the 1800s at the jail. No, this is today."

Twelve hundred inmates are moved to and from court appearances each weekday. Ten thousand pieces of paper accompany them.

"Lee, Donald.... Oh wait, oh wait, that's Lee, David. Let me figure out what's going on here," said a Cook County Jail guard in February, 2013.

It's a cavalcade of accused criminals. As we first reported in February, paperwork problems allowed a convicted killer three days of freedom. Since then, there have been more accidental releases.

"We make mistakes and we have to get better but when you have a system like this it's inherent you're going to have mistakes. This is not something we should accept," said Dart.

For 10 years now, the county has been considering modernizing its court and jail records systems. Little progress has been made.

"I've been here since '85. Really nothing has changed. Just more inmates and more paperwork," said Holmes.

It's the clerk of the court, Dorothy Brown, whose office is responsible for communicating a judge's order to the sheriff. Brown's spokesperson on Wednesday afternoon told ABC7 information on what should happen to inmates is entered into a computer system once a court call is concluded. She says it's the sheriff's department that is impatient and asks for the faster, handwritten orders.


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