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Chicago's Brutal Jail Guards

by Matthew T. Clarke

A series of brutal beatings of prisoners by guards at the Cook County (IL) Jail in Chicago has already resulted in more than $1.5 million being paid to prisoner victims with several unsettled lawsuits still in court. Two jail guards resigned after receiving death threats from other guards for breaking the code of silence and telling the truth about the beatings. Additionally, one lieutenant resigned after he was demoted and suspended. The jail was seeking to fire one supervisor and a guard and suspended another lieutenant. A superintendent, a lieutenant, two sergeants and five guards received other disciplinary punishments. All of the disciplinary actions were related to the beatings and subsequent cover up attempts.

The fallout from the beatings has caused the withdrawal of Ernesto Velasco from consideration for head of the Illinois prison system. Velasco was the jail director at the time of the beatings and had become acting prison system director.

Focus On Three Beatings

Three beatings have received the greatest attention. One in February 1999, involved 40 members of the elite Special Operations Response Team (SORT) who, accompanied by 4 unmuzzled dogs, terrorized and beat 400 prisoners. In May 2000, there was a second beating involving one prisoner and several guards. The third beating was in July 2000 and involved five prisoners and at least nine guards. However, these well-publicized incidents are only the tip of the iceberg.

"It's the 50 or 60 incidents that have created a problem not just with litigation but across the board with the culture of how Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan's office operates," said Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley. "It would be a mistake to focus on isolated incidents when it's systemic." In February 2002, Sheahan recommended settling 35 lawsuits against guards and patrol officers for brutality, citing convincing evidence of the beatings. Over half of those occurred at the jail.

SORTing Out the Gangs -

February 24, 1999

Many guards and supervisors have a nightmare. It's called "losing control"not of themselves, of the jail. To keep from losing control, they micromanage the daily lives of the prisoners and treat as rebellion the slightest hesitancy at obedience to their often arbitrary or inane rules and orders. And rebellion is to be quashed by any means necessary.

To such small minded people it is a sign of rebellion if a prisoner complains that he is sick and the guard refused to let him go to the infirmary. If the prisoners don't like eating breakfast at 3:00 a.m. or showering in the middle of the night, it is leading to rebellion. If prisoners fight and stab each other, it is full scale rebellion. Thus control and respect for authority have been lost and must be restored at all costs.

SORT Commander Richard Remus led his 40 men on a mission on February 24, 1999. The object of the mission was to administer punishment to the approximately 1,000 prisoners in the jail's maximum security section, a two-wing, three-tiered structure known as Division 9. The reason for the mission was the gang-related stabbing of a prisoner on February 21, 1999, and several gang-related fights in previous weeks. The idea was to send the gangs a message that they weren't running things in the jail.

The prisoners in Division 9 had been on lockdown, confined to their cells, since the stabbing. At 6:20 a.m. on February 24th, Remus led his men into action. According to prisoners, SORT entered the division and conducted a shakedown accompanied by widespread beatings. After the ordeal, the prisoners returned to their cells to straighten things up and be thankful that the beatings had been so mild. Later that day, they would find out that they had little to be thankful for.

At 8:30 p.m., Remus and his crew returned and dismissed the regular guards. The SORT members began ransacking cells, throwing prisoners against the walls, and bashing them with batons if they didn't move fast enough.

The only prisoner to sue over the beatings, Cello Pettiford, said "they hit him so often I ended up urinating on myself."

According to the jail's internal affairs report, the prisoners were removed from their cells and Remus climbed up on a table and addressed the prisoners saying, "Who runs Cook County is the SORT Team." Remus then demanded that the prisoners repeat his words in unison. Those refusing or failing to do so were beaten. Meanwhile, Remus bragged that he was unconcerned about the consequences of his actions and instructed his men to injure prisoners who attempted to look at the armored, helmeted and visored SORT guards trying to identify them or read their name tags.

Remus said, "Anybody who turns around, put them in Cook County Hospital. I don't care if they put a lawsuit on me. That doesn't come out of my pocket," according to Miguel Castillo, a prisoner witness who was exonerated and freed after spending eleven years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Prisoners were then ordered to get on the floor cross-legged, face the wall and put their hands behind their heads with elbows forward. True to Remus's word, prisoners who turned around to try to identify their assailants were severely beaten.

According to prisoners, some of them were required to walk a gauntlet of SORT members who beat them. Bert Berrios, who was awaiting a shower when the SORT Team rushed in, was choked when guards violently pulled a rosary from his neck.

According to the internal affairs report, the guards struck the prisoners with wooden batonsmostly in the bodyhitting them in the face only if they attempted to identify who was involved in the assault. Prisoners with tattoos were targeted for special beatings as possible gang members. SORT members attempted to goad larger prisoners into fighting them. Some prisoners were forced to lie on the floor while they were stomped and kicked by SORT members. "If you looked to see what the officer's name was, if you looked at his face, you got hit," said Pettiford. "It was absolutely brutal."

The SORT Team went floor-to-floor throughout the division. Through the ventilation system prisoners on other floors could easily hear the screaming and shouting of prisoners on the floor where the SORT Team was operating. The sweep took about 90 minutes.

Following the beatings, Remus and the SORT Teams ignored prisoners' pleas for medical attention. The prisoners' injuries included broken ribs, black eyes and severe bruising.

The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, got involved at the request of Berrios's father. Edwards wrote them a report stating that he examined Berrios and noted only a small bruise on his right wrist. However, photographs taken by internal affairs examiner show Berrios with a black eye, body bruising "and what appear to be rope burns around his neck." Berrios's father fears for his son's life. "My fear is that they'll kill him. I don't want him to die in jail,"" said the senior Berrios.

The sheriff's Internal Affairs Department (IAD) compiled a 50-page report on the beatings in which 50 of the prisoners were tracked down and interviewed. They all gave similar stories. Among the 49 prisoners who described being beaten without provocation was Leroy Orange, who in January 2003 received an exoneration and pardon from Governor George Ryan based on his innocence.

The IAD report said that, by "directing his SORT supervisors and SORT Members to administer corporeal punishment to detainees," Remus failed to "enforce humane treatment." A total of 29 violationsincluding personal involvement in the beatings of two prisonerswere sustained against Remus. The report also sustained violations against then Superintendent James Edwards, a lieutenant, two sergeants and one other guard for filing false reports in an attempted cover up. Four other guards were cited for violating jail procedures by bringing dogs into the jail.

The IAD report also noted that six jail paramedics and their supervisor refused to give medical treatment to the injured prisoners and urged a separate investigation of jail medical personnel by the sheriff's inspector general (IG) for their refusing to cooperate in the investigation.

The Sheriff's Department also tried to interfere with its own IAD investigation. According to a letter attached to the IAD report written on July 12, 1999, by Henry Barasch, chief IAD investigator, in the summer of 1999, James Ryan, director of operations for the sheriff and Sheahan's third cousin, "questioned the basis and the undersigned's authority to conduct such an investigation," into the beating. This stalled the IAD investigation.

Sally Daly, Sheahan's spokeswoman, said that Ryan wasn't attempting to quash the investigation, but rather redirect it to the IG's office. An investigation was conducted by the IG and returned to the IAD after the IG's office sustained procedural charges against five guards and one former employee, but failed to sustain any allegations of brutality.

In fact, the IG's investigation appears to have been a ruse to stall the report until the three-year statute of limitations for potential criminal charges had expired. The preliminary IAD report arrived at the IG's office in July, 1999. There it sat for 97 weeks before being reopened and completed another 67 weeks later. Following his demotion from SORT commander and 29-day suspension, Remus resigned from the department.

The Fire Brigades -May 9, 2000

George Fernandez, 26, was the kind of prisoner jailers hate. He knew how to write complaints about poor jail conditionsespecially poor medical treatment. He complained to the superintendent and, when those letters were ignored, to the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. According to Fernandez, on May 9, 2000, guards decided to repay him for his trouble.

Fernandez says guards rushed into his cell and beat him. A lieutenant first sprayed him with a fire extinguisher, then beat him on the head and chest with it. A second lieutenant hit him in the leg, while another guard cheered him on with, "break his leg." The guards then allegedly took Fernandez to another room where they choked, body-slammed, and beat him. Fernandez says guards stabbed him in the legs and tore his rosary beads from his neck. After the ordeal, he was taken to the hospital, then brought back to the jail and dumped into the pump room, a windowless room near the cell block.

Sheahan's IAD investigation called the allegations false. They say Fernandez set fire to his mattress, then refused to leave his cell when guards showed up to put the fire out. This caused them to forcibly extract him from his cell. However, they found that some guards violated departmental rules and one guard used excessive force. On May 23, 2003, Sheahan instituted proceedings to fire Lt. Edward J. Byrne, 49, a 15-year jail veteran, and Sherwin Boston, 40, who has been a guard for ten years. Boston beat on Fernandez and Byrne observed the brutality but failed to stop it or report it. Lt. LeRoy Martiniak, an eleven-year veteran of the jail, was suspended for 29 days for failing to perform supervisory duties in connection with the beating of Fernandez.

Pump Room Torture Chamber -

July 29, 2000

One of the differences between the beatings on July 29, 2000, and those which took place three and seventeen months earlier is that two guard witnesses were willing to tell the truth about the beatings. Little did they know what they were getting into. Breaking the code of silence by testifying under oath that they saw handcuffed and shackled prisoners pushed and dragged down a hallway that was covered in blood then shoved into a windowless room and brutally beaten led to harassment by other guards and eventually death threats which caused them to resign.

According to the prisoners, what former guards Roger Fairly, 37, and Richard Gackowski, 37, saw was the result of a brutal shakedown in the jail's maximum security section. They claim the guards began throwing all of the prisoners' personal belongings out of their cells, then forcing the prisoners to run a gauntlet of guards who punched them. This caused a melee which ended with five prisoners being handcuffed, shackled and dragged away.

Responding to calls for help, Fairly and Gackowski came upon the scene of carnage in the windowless pump room.

"I heard screaming. I heard people hitting each other, flesh upon flesh. I saw blood splattered all over the doors, all over the walls, all over the piles of garbage and the floor of the corridor. A lot of blood. I saw [guards] hitting [handcuffed and shackled prisoners] with elbows, stomping on their faces and heads, kicking them in the face," said Fairly in sworn testimony. "I yelled at them to stop because what I saw was too violent. But they didn't."

What he saw was guards beating prisoners Nathson Fields, Andre Crawford, Luis Sanchez, James Scott and Edward Mitchell, all of whom were awaiting trial for murder. According to the two guards, the brutality was inhuman.

Fairley testified that he heard a lieutenant upon arriving at the pump room say, "They want to hurt my officers?... They deserve to die."

Gackowski testified that the same lieutenant confided to him that, "he grabbed inmate Mitchell's good leg, the other leg was in a cast and did everything he couldtwisted it, jumped on it, hit itdid whatever he could to get that leg to snap, and it just wouldn't snap and he laughed about it. He thought it was funny."

Fairley said the beating continued until a guard in the hallway warned of the approach of a ranking supervisor. The five prisoners and seven guards were then taken to hospitals for medical treatment.

Jail officials claim the disturbance was planned by Fields, who allegedly hoped to provoke a fight with guards to win a brutality lawsuit. If so, it worked to perfection as the brutality sent seven guards and five prisoners to hospitals for treatment of injuries ranging from a broken finger to a large scalp wound. Three weeks later, the prisoners sued the county for more than $50,000.

Although Sheahan found four prisoners who gave statements supporting his theory that the prisoners instigated the fight to provoke brutality and win money in a suit, the prisoners' lawyer dismissed that allegation as "ridiculous." Under Sheahan's theory, the prisoners colluded with their lawyer to take advantage of the high-profile death of jail prisoner Louis Schmude which had occurred two months earlier in a Bridgeview holding cell. This, they allegedly thought, would make it easy to win a brutality suit.

"The theory that the inmates got together with me and planned to get beaten by guards doesn't make any sense," said the prisoners' lawyer. "It ignores the reality that five inmates at the jail were beaten so badly that they had to go to outside hospitals." It also ignores the fact that the beaten prisoners were helplesshandcuffed and shackled. That is brutality, a common practice at the jail that costs the county millions in settlements each year noted Charles Fasano, the John Howard Association's director of prisons and jails.

Besides being illegal and immoral, excessive force against prisoners is "a very dangerous practice" that "raises the volatility level of the jail. It's bad management," said Fasano. "Even if the guy struck an officer, it does not justify hitting him later. You can defend yourself, but once you have restrained him, then you cease using offensive moves against him. They are trained to do that."

Fairley says he was harassed for months after the beating because he yelled for the other guards to stop. His co-workers called him "social worker" and "inmate lover" and said that he couldn't fight anymore since he had gotten married. Gackowski said other guards made cooing noises at him over their two-way radios "because he was a stool pigeon" for being a friend of Fairley's and testifying about the beatings. According to Fairley, a lieutenant and other guards set him up to be cut by a prisoner with a razor. Complaints to IAD fell on deaf ears. "They had my complaint for seven months and never interviewed any of my witnesses," said Gackowski.

This difficult situation became intolerable when a guard told Gackowski that Fairley was "a weak link in the chain" and that weak links had to be "buried." Both men took this as a death threat. Both have wives and two young children. On February 3, 2003, both decided to seek a transfer from jail duty and, when it was refused, both resigned. Fairley was an eight-year veteran guard, Gackowski had been in a guard's uniform for seven years. Neither had any disciplinary problem greater than being a couple of minutes late for work.

"I wouldn't be a part of the boy's club, and neither would Roger," said Gackowski. "We wouldn't go along with the status quobrutality."

Charles Holman, the internal affairs investigator who investigated the beatings, also felt the pressure. Sheahan insisted his guards only made "procedural" errors, but Holman's report sustains charges of brutality against a supervisor and other violations against nine other guards. Holman's supervisor pressured him to rethink his findings. When he refused, Holman was accused of leaking the results of his confidential internal affairs investigation to the media and summarily reassigned. Holman denies the accusation.

Ironically, despite having the testimony of two guards who witnessed the beatings, none of the guards who participated in the beatings have been disciplined. IAD ruled the guards' and prisoners' claims "inconclusive," a finding midway between sustained and exonerated.


In April 2003, with U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) calling for a federal investigation of brutality at the jail, Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine opened a criminal investigation into the jail beatings. Cook County Chief Criminal Judge Paul Biebel Jr. said that a grand jury would also investigate the jail. The grand jury would not seek indictments, but only weigh whether state statutes have been violated. Federal prosecutors announced a federal probe into possible criminal acts associated with the beatings and the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation into the 1999 beatings.

On March 4, 2003, under intense pressure, Sheahan announced the formation of a three-member panel of his own to investigate the jail beatings. Sheahan also ordered that SORT Team operations be videotaped in the future. However, there is doubt about Sheahan's objectivity. He has disciplined eight guards and removed Remus from his position as SORT unit leader and suspended him without pay for 29 days for "procedural" errors in the 1999 beatings, but has never made a finding of brutality at his jail.

For Sheahan, the objective of a probe is spin control while what Cook County prisoners need is a fundamental change in the culture of the jail from one of brutality and abuse to one of professionalism. There is no indication that Sheahan is willing to, or capable of providing such a sea change in the jail's culture. Disciplinary actions are often overturned by union or court arbitrators or in subsequent court action. Thus, justice is not yet, and may never be, done in this case of institutionalized guard brutality.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Associated. Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Corrections Professional, Revolutionary Worker.

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