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Cook County Jail Conditions Unconstitutional, Charges Department of Justice

Cook County Jail Conditions Unconstitutional, Charges Department of Justice

by David M. Reutter

On July 11, 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division issued a letter to officials at Illinois’ Cook County Jail (CCJ) which found that conditions at CCJ violated the constitutional rights of prisoners held at the facility. The 98-page letter detailed findings based upon on-site inspections that occurred on June 18-22 and July 23-27, 2007.

The inspectors found that prisoners were not protected from excessive use of force by jail staff or prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Medical and mental health care was inadequate, and serious risks were posed by a lack of fire safety precautions. Further, environmental and sanitation deficiencies existed.

CCJ is one of the largest single-site county jails in the nation. It sits on approximately 96 acres in Chicago, and has an average daily population of 9,800 male and female prisoners. In 2006, CCJ admitted 99,663 prisoners. As a historical note, Al Capone was once housed at the jail.

Since 1982 the facility has been under federal court supervision in a class action overcrowding lawsuit. CCJ is still under a consent decree in that ongoing case. See: Duran v. Dart, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 74-C-2949. On August 22, 2008 the U.S. District Court over the Duran consent decree levied fines of $1,000 per day against the CCJ for failure to comply with court orders related to staff training and medical care for prisoners.

The first issue addressed in the Department of Justice’s letter was CCJ’s “culture of abusing inmates.” Several examples were cited where verbal altercations with prisoners “too often provoke physical responses from CCJ [guards].” A “heated” exchange or verbal insults between prisoners and guards landed several prisoners in the hospital after they were beaten by a group of guards. Failure to follow orders often resulted in beatings by CCJ staff.

Physical force was sometimes inappropriately used at CCJ even after an active dispute between a prisoner and guard had ended, apparently to punish the prisoner. Retaliatory use of force occurred when guards were dealing with mentally ill prisoners with limited impulse control, although the prisoners did not present a threat to themselves or others.
A mentally ill prisoner identified as “Robert T.” learned of such brutality firsthand after he exposed himself to a female guard. A group of guards took him to a clothing room, handcuffed him, and then hit and kicked him. Robert sustained head trauma that was so severe he had to be taken to an outside hospital.

The highest number of abuse of force allegations occurred in the Receiving, Classification and Diagnostics Center (RCDC), which is CCJ’s intake area. The “RCDC is chronically overcrowded, cramped, chaotic, and insufficiently staffed,” the federal investigators found. Prisoners who request attention for various needs risk being assaulted by guards. Many prisoners reported that those who are old, mentally ill or do not understand English are struck by guards for dressing and undressing too slowly.

Some prisoners were targeted for physical abuse purely because of their charges. Among the examples cited in the Dept. of Justice letter was the case of “Pedro S.,” who was arrested on a sex charge involving his niece. Three guards taunted him in Spanish, asking if he knew what was going to happen to him. The resulting beating that Pedro received resulted in a broken rib and damaged jaw and knee. Another prisoner who did not return a guard’s pen quickly enough suffered multiple fractures and a collapsed lung that required him to be placed on a ventilator.

“There’s clearly examples of corrections officers in organized groups beating inmates to retaliate for verbal abuse, and people going to the hospital for it. And that’s got to stop,” said U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald.

Yet CCJ officials tried to ignore the problem. Investigations of excessive force complaints are not undertaken until after a prisoner files a lawsuit. It is then “almost impossible” for that investigation “to appear fair and unbiased when the investigation is undertaken only because CCJ is defending [against] an inmate lawsuit,” the Justice Department stated.

The Use of Force and Incident Reports that CCJ utilizes are inadequate to determine if the amount of force used was appropriate. While the reports may say the prisoner received medical attention, they fail to indicate the extent of the injuries or care provided. CCJ guards also attempted to conceal excessive use of force by themselves or others, and this extended to intimidating prisoners to keep quiet.

Overcrowding contributes to prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and inadequate staffing allows such assaults to occur. In the week of March 19, 2007, CCJ had 591 prisoners sleeping on the floor due to lack of bed space. That week there were 35 fights, 27 uses of force, and 34 homemade knives and 12 other weapons were found. CCJ averages 23.5 prisoner fights a week and 3 assaults on staff.

One of those attacks proved fatal, when CCJ prisoner John Lambert died due to massive head injuries in July 2007. His death was ruled a homicide, though the primary suspect – Lambert’s cellmate, who had a history of violence – was not charged.

The CCJ’s dilapidated physical condition provides prisoners with ample material for fabricating weapons. The poor condition of the building is also a health and safety threat.
“The level of fire safety at CCJ is poor,” the investigators noted. Not only does CCJ not have sufficient smoke and sprinkler systems, but fires are a regular occurrence at the jail. Prisoners frequently set small fires in their cells for two reasons: to get guards’ attention and to utilize the metal plate on their bunks as a hot plate to heat food.

At every level of operation at the CCJ there are severe environmental health and safety problems. In addition to numerous electrical hazards and plumbing deficiencies, serious ventilation issues exist. The combination of high temperature and humidity, overcrowding, and lack of air movement increases the risk of communicable diseases.
There is also a major pest control problem with mice, cockroaches and drain flies.

Of a more serious concern, prisoners who become ill face a broken and dysfunctional medical care system. Many of the problems with medical care result from inadequate staff. The deficiencies begin with insufficient intake screening, and continue through the entire spectrum of assessment, acute and chronic care, medicine dispensation and mental health treatment. In August 2006, a prisoner’s leg had to be amputated after an infection went untreated. “You can’t have conditions where people are dying and being amputated,” said U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald.

Following the official letter from the Dept. of Justice, the stage is now set for a consent decree between CCJ and federal officials. If that does not occur, CCJ could face a civil rights suit and greater scrutiny by the federal courts. Of course, that such conditions exist after decades of litigation illustrate the limitations of civil rights litigation. The DOJ report is posted on PLN’s website.

Sources: Letter from U.S. Dept. of Justice dated July 11, 2008; Chicago Tribune; New York Times

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Related legal case

Duran v. Dart