Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

“Hot Bunking” at Cook County Jail Could Violate Consent Decree

In December 2007, to alleviate the problem of prisoners sleeping on the floor due to chronic overcrowding, Illinois’ Cook County Jail started “hot bunking.” The practice entails prisoners taking turns sleeping in the same bed in shifts. Each prisoner uses a bunk for 8 hours, then turns it over to another prisoner.

“It doesn’t reduce the population, but it gets people up off the floor,” said Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Penny Mateck. “Each inmate has their own bedding. So the bedding is changed each time a new person sleeps in the bunk.” It was not mentioned whether mattresses are sanitized when the bedding is changed. Failure to sanitize can be a contribut-ing factor to the spread of staph infections such as MRSA, which runs rampant in many prisons and jails, including Cook County’s.

Cook County’s hot bunking initiative is a pilot program that involves 144 of the more than 9,700 prisoners at the facil-ity. Sheriff’s officials say the prisoners volunteered to take part. Coerced would be a more correct term, though, as the participants were bribed with extra showers, television and out-of-cell time. All of the participating prisoners are convicted misdemeanants rather than pre-trial detainees.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart defended the program as an approach commonly used on U.S. Navy subma-rines. “I’ve heard of it in a few other places,” said Charles A. Fasano, Director of the Prison and Jails Program at the John Howard Association of Illinois. “It is not considered a good practice. It is trying to deal with things in a roundabout way, rather than deal with the underlying problem, which is you’ve got too many people in the institution.”

The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, acts as a court-appointed monitor in a longstanding federal civil rights case concerning overcrowding at the Cook County Jail (Duran v. Dart, U.S.D.C. ND Ill., Case No. 1:74-cv-02949). That lawsuit, originally filed in 1974, resulted in a consent decree which is still in effect.

On February 1, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia M. Kendall, who oversees the Duran consent decree, held a hearing on the issue of hot bunking. Judge Kendall also toured parts of the Cook County Jail to observe the practice of hot bunking first-hand; she was accompanied by John Howard Association Exec. Director Malcolm C. Young, Charles Fasano and Sheriff Dart.

Several months later, on April 7, 2008, the Duran plaintiffs filed a memorandum with the court arguing that the jail’s practice of hot bunking would be in violation of the consent decree if it was expanded to pre-trial detainees (who constitute members of the Duran class action suit). The court was informed that the plain language of the consent decree, which states “Each pre-trial detainee shall have one permanent bed in a cell,” prohibits hot bunking for the class members. The court has not yet ruled on the practice of hot bunking as a means to address overcrowding at the Cook County Jail.

In 2007, overcrowding required around 456 prisoners to sleep on the jail’s floor each day, up 71 percent from the pre-vious year. However, that was a significant decrease from the 1,419 Cook County jail prisoners who slept on the floor in 2002. And even that was an improvement over the 2,443 prisoners who slept on the floor on a daily basis in 1992. The Sheriff’s Department has said other stakeholders in the criminal justice system, particularly the state courts, must take action to reduce overcrowding at the jail.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Memorandum filed in Duran v. Dart (April 7, 2008)

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Duran v. Dart