Piece of paper lies between freedom, jail for Cook Co. inmates

February 7, 2013 3:29:24 PM PST
Being inside the Cook County Jail is like going back in time. It's dark, gritty and antiquated.

There are few computers and none control inmate movement. Instead, a few words scribbled on a piece of paper are all that stand between a prisoner and freedom.

It is controlled chaos. More than 1,000 of the jail's 10,000 person population leave the lock-up for court appearances each weekday. How do they know who's going where? And more importantly: Who to turn free?

"This court order here is ordering me to release him from custody on this case only, but it's also ordering me to put him on home monitoring for 140 days. Which one do I do?"

Handwriting on a carbon copied piece of paper can be an inmate's ticket to freedom. No computers. No bar codes. Nothing sophisticated.

"The fact the Clerk's computer, our computer, the state's attorney's computer, none of them talks to each other and therein lies the inherent problem," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.

Each day, jail staff fills mailboxes with slips of paper dictating which inmates have court appearances.

"The person travels with a piece of paper, the minimums. They have Ids to tell who it is but there isn't some high tech scanning for wrist bracelets," Cook County 1st Asst. Deputy Sheriff Kevin Connelly said.

Inmates are escorted through a 1.8 mile labyrinth of underground tunnels. If, in court, a judge orders a prisoner released- that's noted on the paperwork. And that's it. They're processed out.

A misinterpretation of paperwork is how convicted killer Steven Robbins received three days of freedom before being taken back into custody.

"There are some things internally we've changed but I'd be lying to you if I said this is monumental," Sheriff Dart said. "No, we knew this system was like this. We knew the possibility for errors but there is a limit on what you can do dealing with all paperwork."

Updating computer systems so the courts and jail can communicate electronically has been talked about for at least a decade. The roadblock, as usual, is money.

Sheriff Dart hopes the accidental release Robbins last week may push county commissioners to spend the tens of millions necessary to bring the jail's technology into the current century.