November 11, 2013

Cook County Jail at Crisis Point

November 11, 2013. Chicago. Cook County Jail is the largest prison in the US with over 9,700 inmates. It’s also sarcastically called the nation’s largest mental health facility, which sadly enough, is true. After decades of abuse and torture, and four years of budget cuts, the prison is a powder keg waiting to blow. Today, the Teamsters took out a full page ad in the Sun Times giving one more warning.

Cook County Jail is beyond overcrowded. Image courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

Teamsters ad

‘A MESSAGE TO OUR OUTSTANDING LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS AT THE COOK COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS,’ the full page ad in today’s Chicago Sun Times read, ‘Teamsters Local 700 is PROUD to be your union. We FIGHT daily to protect your rights. We will always STAND by you.’

The message and ad are aimed directly at Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. To close record county budget deficits, Preckwinkle has repeatedly forced across-the-board spending cuts to departments like Dart’s Sheriff’s office, which also overseas Cook County Jail.

Those budget cuts, according to the Teamsters union that represents the County Sheriffs Deputies that staff Cook County Jail, are jeopardizing the lives and safety of the men and women who work at the prison. As Teamsters Local 700 President Becky Strzechowski says in the ad, “While we are kept safe, correctional officers are not.”

Speaking of the jail guards the Teamsters represent, the full page ad says, ‘They face regular assaults from inmates. They do not have proper safety equipment available to protect themselves. And at the root of the threats and issues they face is under-staffing. It is unacceptable for the largest county correctional facility in the country to be short staffed – yet it is. This is a correctional officer concern. This is a Teamster concern. And this is a public safety concern.’

Taking issue with some of the spending choices Sheriff Dart has made recently, the Teamsters ridicule the office. ‘While correctional officers work without the tools and staff they need,’ the ad criticizes, ‘the Sheriff’s Department spends resources on raising chickens, growing gardens and scheduling blindfolded Russian chess masters to play games with inmates. This is utterly unacceptable.’

Largest Healthcare facility in America

The next time someone brags that Americans have the best healthcare in the world, remind them that the largest healthcare facility in the US is Cook County Jail. With 9,700 potential patients per day, the prison sees not only trauma wounds like stabbings, but also services an estimated 3,000 mental illness patients per day. That’s the reality that we were all warned about three years ago when Governor Quinn began slashing state mental health spending.

As detailed by Think Progress after an interview with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, Illinois has cut mental health spending by 31 percent since 2009. The state also closed two large mental health facilities. In all, they represent the fourth-largest mental health spending cuts of all the states in the nation. Sheriff Dart insists that’s one of the main reasons his jail is so overcrowded, under-staffed and under-funded.

Estimating what percentage of Cook County Jail’s inmates suffer from mental illness, Sheriff Dart says, “Conservative numbers are 25, but we think it’s closer to 30 or 35 percent of our jail population that has a mental illness… so we’ve effectively become the largest mental health hospital in the country.”

Dart went on to tell the publication, “I don’t know anybody who could say that someone suffering from serious mental illness should be put in a tiny, confined area that is populated by another individual who has a mental illness — who you don’t know and may or may not have some issues with violence as well — be medicated and treated as if you were a criminal.”

Problems run deep

Like many jails, Cook County has some serious problems. And we’re not even talking about the dozens of multi-million-dollar torture cases that are still winding their way through the system. We’re also not even going to mention that according to the one study ever done, there are more innocent people in Cook County Jail than guilty people. Instead, the jail’s problems run even deeper.

According to Dart, the jail’s way of treating its roughly 3,000 mental illness patients is to keep them doped up with medication while they’re there. “Their mission is to get [the inmates] stabilized, make sure they’re on their meds,” Dart explained to Think Progress, “And when they’re on their way out, [the doctors] give them a plastic baggie with two weeks’ worth of meds.”

Dart says one of the most common requests he gets when he talks to inmates is for help finding somewhere to live after they get released. While Chicago’s low income housing programs have been exposed for giving millions of dollars in housing to the wealthy kids of powerful politicians, an invisible army of 105,000 homeless occupied the city in 2012. Many of them end up at Cook County Jail because of it.

Problems run deeper

It’s one thing to talk about budget cuts, percentages and overcrowding. But it’s a little more impactful when actual people and predicaments are exposed. Take a WBEZ story two months ago that showed what innocent defendants are forced to go through. Unlike the movies where defendants are allowed to walk out the door when they’re declared “not guilty,” in Cook County, the innocent go to jail.

With an antiquated pen-and-pencil system of tracking prisoner movements to and from court hearings, defendants declared not guilty must still go back to jail and wait for County employees to process the paperwork. The WBEZ story details one victim who’s suing the County. After being found not guilty, he was taken back to Cook County Jail where he was violently assaulted by other inmates as he waited to be released.

In some cases, the story reveals, the process takes as long as 12 hours. For an innocent man sitting in jail, that only adds insult to injury. The county is in the process of updating its prisoner transfer system to use modern technology like scanners. They hope it will speed up the process and save money. For now though, the new system is only in place in one of the county’s nine courthouses.

And deeper, and deeper

Imagine you’re accused of a crime. Now, imagine you’ve been arrested and charged by police. You’re taken to Cook County Jail where you wait for your trial. Unlike the wealthy who bond themselves out and wait in the luxury of their own homes, you and the rest of the poor get to call Cook County Jail your home until your trial.

Now, imagine five years go by and you’re still a prisoner at Cook County Jail, still waiting for your trial to start. Now, imagine ten years go by and you’re still a prisoner at Cook County Jail, still waiting for your trial to start. The US Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to a speedy trial. Apparently, Cook County politicians didn’t get the memo.

A special report by the Chicago Sun Times this May revealed that there are dozens of Cook County Jail inmates that have been imprisoned there for more than five years, all waiting for their trials to start. In one instance, the accused has been in jail for 11 years – waiting for his trial to begin. Granted in his case, there are extenuating circumstances. His lawyer filed a motion to strike evidence from his case and the appeal went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. But it took 11 years. And because the man faces a $1 million bail amount, he’s been sitting in Cook County Jail this entire time and his trial still hasn’t started.

Cook County Jail is meant for short-term prisoners along the lines of a few days or weeks. It’s also meant to house prisoners for the few months while they are tried. If convicted, they’re then transferred to a state penitentiary to serve out their sentences. But the Sun Times found that there are 539 inmates in the jail, roughly 5% of the prison population, that have been there between two and three years, most if not all waiting for their trials.

At a cost of $52,000 per year to house an inmate at Cook County Jail, a speedier court system and the restoration of some of the state’s previous mental health funding would go a long way in solving some of the jail’s problems. But as evidenced by yesterday’s full page ad by the prison guards and their Teamsters union, long term fixes aren’t even part of the discussion at this point. They need help and they need it now.



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