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Chicago Jail Still Rife With Prisoner Abuse, Crimes By Guards

Chicago Jail Still Rife With Prisoner Abuse,
Crimes By Guards

by Matthew T. Clarke

The Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, remains the scene of controversy involving beatings of prisoners, stealing of drugs held for evidence, and guards having sex with female prisoners.

Prisoners Beaten

As reported in the February, 2004, PLN, the Cook County Jail has been a dangerous place for prisoners. Two particularly egregious incidents made headlines in the spring of 2003 as the result of suits filed by prisoners.

The first was a 1999 incident in which a 40-member squad of guards (the SORT team) beat and terrorized prisoners in a maximum-security unit of the jail, apparently for no other reason than to show that they could. The second was a separate incident in 2000 in which five handcuffed and shackled prisoners who were laying on the floor were beaten by at least 20 guards.

When the stories about prisoner abuse in Cook County jail broke, Sheriff Michael Sheahan denied that the abuse took place, then said he would appoint a panel to study the allegations. He also suspended guard Sgt. Richard Remus, who led the 40-man squad and Lt. Edward Byrne, who led the 20-plus-man squad, although Sheahan claimed the suspensions were unrelated to the allegations of prisoner abuse. Little has come of the investigation" since.

On March 30, 2004, federal district judge Charles Norgle fined attorneys Edward Theobald, Alan Burnell and Anthony Pinelli $5,000 each for attempting to be named special state's attorneys" in state civil court. They were defending three former Cook County Jail guards accused of beating deceased prisoner Louis Schmude. The case had already been removed to federal court when, according to Norgle, the attorneys acted improperly by seeking and obtaining numerous awards of attorney fees.

Schmude's family settled their civil suit against Cook County for $550,000 in 1993. The suit against the guards is still pending.
On July 24, 2003, a federal jury in Chicago awarded Stanley Jones $775,000 in damages for a beating he received from gang members in the jail's Division 9 in March 1999, while he was' a pretrial detainee. The trial centered on the jail's failure to separate non-gang-affiliated prisoners (neutrons) from gang members. The award included $25,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages against Ernesto Velasco, the former director of the jail who had to resign from his post as head of the Illinois prison system when the jail beatings scandal broke in March 2003. Another $250,000 in punitive damages was awarded against James W. Edwards, former Division 9 supervisor.

U. S. Magistrate Judge Sidney I. Schenkier denied the jail officials' motion for new trial, saying that the jail officials set the stage" for gangs assaulting neutrons by housing them together. However, Schenkier reduced the punitive damage awards to $100,000 against Velasco and $50,000 against Edwards. In doing so, he noted that the U. S. Supreme Court had indicated disapproval of punitive damage awards that are ten times the size of the compensatory damages or more.

Schenkier noted that the jury may have intended to punish Edwards and Velasco for disrespecting the plaintiff and the trial process. During trial Edwards slouched at defense counsel table with a toothpick dangling from his mouth. He also called Jones a heathen" when testifying. Velasco didn't show up for trial at all.

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman dismissed some of the claims in a lawsuit brought by Cello Pettiford over the beating he received from the SORT-2 Team in 1999. However, he let stand claims against Sheahan and Remus pertaining to the beating, an attempted cover up and denial of medical attention after the beating.

In the case of the July 29, 2000, beatings Sheahan has resorted to the time-honored tactic of blaming the victims. In a June 10, 2004, letter to Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine, Sheahan alleged that Jean Maclean Snyder, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago, and five of the beaten prisoners whom she represents, planned in advance to stage an improper use of force at the jail so she could file suit. In the letter, Sheahan claimed to have three sworn statements from prisoners who claim one of the plaintiffs tried to recruit them to join the plan. Snyder said that the accusation was a ploy to point people in the wrong direction." Snyder retorted, Five inmates were severely beaten while handcuffed and shackled. That's a plan? I guess my crime was to bring these things to the public's attention.

Meanwhile, prisoners continued to be beaten at Cook County Jail. On January 10, 2003, four prisoners were stabbed and six others injured in a dayroom battle. On July 27, 2003, a fight involving prisoners and guards broke out. Seven prisoners were injured. They claimed they were abused by guards. On October 27, 2003, seven prisoners were injured in a dayroom melee that included the use of a shank. Three prisoners were hospitalized, one with stab wounds to the neck and chest. Bill Cunningham, spokesman for the Sheriff, conceded that the fight was gang related. No jail employees were injured in this incident.

Amid all the violence against prisoners, Devine announced that he would not prosecute any of the guards involved in the 2000 beatings. He said the witnesses, which included some jail employees, made statements that were too contradictory. He has also failed to prosecute any of the SORT team members involved in the 1999 beatings.

Guards Charged With Felony

Custodial Sexual Conduct

While some guards were beating male prisoners, others were allegedly exchanging promises of special treatment for sex with female prisoners. On August 15, 2003, guards James Anthony III, 28, Iyare Egonmwan, 28, and Kenneth Swearingen, 41, were charged with felony custodial sexual misconduct as the result of an investigation that followed a female prisoner's letter to the superintendent of the jail's Division 4. In the letter, the prisoner complained of having provided the sex, but not having received the promised favors, which included food, makeup and cash.

Anthony, who is married and has five children, was charged with four counts in alleged sexual contact with four different prisoners between February and March, 2003. Egonmwan is charged with two counts resulting from sex acts with two prisoners simultaneously in one prisoner's cell. They face up to five years in prison per count.

Swearingen, who was accused of having sex with a prisoner in the shower room in 2002, was acquitted by Judge Vincent Gaughan on June 1, 2004. According to Swearinger's lawyer, the case was based upon the word of one prisoner who was unable to get Swearinger to say anything incriminating when she wore a wire. The prosecutor's office said it would continue to prosecute the other two guards. Swearingen resigned from his jail job in 2003.

FBI Busts Law Enforcement

Personnel Stealing Drugs and Cash

An additional scandal in Cook County involves plans to steal large amounts of cash and drugs from drug dealers. Jacques Polk, a former Cook County Forest Preserve police officer was busted by the FBI as he tried to rip off an FBI agent posing as a drug dealer. He then agreed to help set up three others. This led to the conviction of Anthony Brown, a former parole agent for the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) and Jerome Coleman, a former Cook County sheriff's deputy for stealing $20,000 cash and a phony kilo of cocaine from the trunk of an FBI car they thought belonged to a drug dealer. Brown received a sentence of 8 years and 1 month in prison. Coleman was sentenced to 7 years and 8 months in prison. Also convicted for the same offense was former DOC parole agent Jesse Kuykendol, who died of meningitis and AIDS before he could be sentenced. A total of seven current or former law enforcement personnel have been convicted in the sting operation referred to by the FBI as Operation Blue Steal.

One Guard's Puppy Love/Hate

Although Devine has refused to prosecute any of the Cook County Jail guards for beating prisoners, the citizens of Cook County can rest assured that he is on the job. Devine did prosecute one guard whose victim died. The guard, Peter Stratigos, 37, was charged with felony cruelty to animals for kicking his three-month-old fifteen-pound female shepard-mix puppy to death. Stratigos was acquitted by Circuit Judge Garritt Howard in February, 2004, who ruled that, if Stratigos was telling the truth, he was guilty of overreacting" to a perceived threat to the safety of his four-year-old son, but he is not guilty of a felony offense," noting that Stratigos spent over $200 on pet food and other expense in the week he owned the puppy. On May 18, 2004, Stratigos, who had been suspended since August, 2003, was reinstated as a guard at the Cook County Jail. After all, just because a man kicked a helpless puppy until it died of injuries that included three broken ribs, a fractured jaw, a fractured femur, and internal hemorrhaging, doesn't mean he would abuse the helpless men in his custody--does it? The reinstatement with time-served on the suspension as a disciplinary penalty amply demonstrates why the Cook County jail continues to be a hotbed of prisoner abuse and corruption.

Sources: Chicago Tribune; Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

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