Chicago: “Life-threatening deficiencies” found in largest US jail
Conditions in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, the nation’s largest, are so hazardous and brutal that federal authorities have declared the facility in violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights. The findings are the result of a 17-month investigation beginning in February 2007, which examined multiple deaths from beatings and neglect.
In a report summary released as a 98-page letter to Cook County authorities July 11, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the US attorney’s office in Chicago detailed “grossly unsanitary conditions,” “deliberate indifference” of jail staff to medical problems, and a pervasive culture of violence among guards.
The letter was addressed to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and the county sheriff, Thomas Dart, from acting Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker and Patrick Fitzgerald, the US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. It was made publicly available July 17.
The letter stated, “In particular, we find that inmates confined at CCJ are not adequately protected from harm, including physical harm from excessive use of force by staff and inmate-on-inmate violence due to inadequate supervision.” In addition, “inmates do not receive adequate medical and mental health care...face serious risks posed by inadequate fire safety precautions” and “environmental and sanitation deficiencies at CCJ result in unconstitutional living conditions for inmates.”
A number of lawsuits brought by former inmates are currently pending against the jail over injuries and violations of civil rights. Cook County Sheriff Dart’s office issued a statement in response to the letter, calling it “a roadmap to address operational deficiencies and improve conditions.” However, the sheriff’s office also “categorically rejected” the letter’s descriptions of systemic violations of prisoners’ rights and said the report “relies on inflammatory language and draws conclusions based on anecdotes and hearsay from inmates.”
According to the letter, the 96-acre facility is so “chronically overcrowded” that every day of the investigation, “numerous inmates were required to sleep on the floor of two-person cells that housed three inmates.”
On average, 485 inmates slept on the floor and prisoners rotated beds in eight-hour shifts, a CCJ scheme called “hot-bunking.” The report noted that the procedure could exacerbate sanitation and infection problems as well as inmate-to-inmate intimidation. Several cases of infections resulting in death and amputations were cited, all preventable.
The jail has also attempted to deal with overcapacity and understaffing through a practice known as “cross-watching.” This procedure involved allowing tiers of prisoners out into common areas in “shifts” every other day, under the supervision of a single guard monitoring with cameras. Cross-watching results in 26-hour cell lockdowns for prisoners every other day, regardless of their conduct or crimes. The practice interferes with medical and mental health care as well as the grievance and legal processes, particularly for pre-trial prisoners.
The report noted that because many cells in the Cook County Jail are extremely dilapidated—“no lighting, plumbing failures, etc.”—the cross-watching and overcrowding resulted in squalid, inhumane conditions. In shower and toilet areas, investigators “frequently observed broken switch plate and receptacle covers with exposed live wires.”
The jail employed a single sanitarian on its staff, although she was not registered and had been given no training in the operation of “the few pieces of sanitation equipment provided to her.” In both cells and medical areas, the report described “accumulations of dirt, trash, mold, and mildew that had been allowed to exist for long periods of time.”
Toilet areas were “extremely unsanitary.” Hundreds of mattresses were “worn to the point that they were incapable of being cleaned,” increasing the transmission of pathogens among the jailed population as well as providing hiding places for weapons. Rodents and pestilent insects were pervasive. Investigators noted that “many inmates had towels or other types of barriers across the bottom of their cell doors to keep the mice out of their cells at night.”
In the kitchen, about 30,000 meals are prepared each day, mostly by 200 inmates under the supervision of certified food service managers. During the investigation period, all of the pots and preparatory utensils in the kitchen were washed by hand because of nonfunctioning dishwashers. Inmates in the kitchen were not given training, and were not wearing gloves or hairnets. Additionally, “numerous sinks had clogged drains, and excessive garbage was piled on the floor.... The floor in the dishwashing area is in poor repair, causing standing water,” the report noted.
In some cells, no drinking water was available to locked-down inmates for longer than 24-hour periods, and other cells were continuously flooding for more than a month. Lack of ventilation, high temperatures and humidity, and overcrowding resulted in an unhealthy, stinking environment with a heightened risk of airborne disease transmission. Water on the floors, lack of functional lights, and no light-emitting windows further contributed to accidents and other problems.
The report noted that inmates burned milk cartons and other trash in their cells to heat food. “Small in-cell fires are common,” the report stated. “Many inmates use the cell lighting fixtures as an ignition source for warming food and starting fires.... In scores of cells, the bottom bunk has evidence of having been heated.”
In the United States, jails differ from prisons in several ways. US jails typically hold prisoners at all stages of adjudication; many inmates have yet to be charged, are mid-trial, not sentenced or convicted. Jail prisoner populations have a high turnover rate, with most prisoners released after a few weeks. Many convicted jail prisoners are serving sentences of less than one year, usually for charges not serious enough for prison. Others are detained for problems related to drug and alcohol addiction, which find little support in public health programs. Those held in jails suffer much higher rates of mental illness, HIV/AIDS, and other pressing health problems. Many have been homeless.
Over the past several decades, the criminalization of the poorest layers of the US working class—particularly in former industrial cities such as Chicago—has grown in tandem with domestic de-industrialization and the abandonment of social infrastructure. While this is manifested in increased levels of drug trafficking, gang crimes, domestic violence, and other social ills, it is also the case that a large proportion of those detained in jails are there simply as a consequence of their impoverishment and the dearth of support programs.
Disease in jails and prisons are rampant, yet, the CDC claims its unable to track/follow the impact of the returning inmates into their communities. The nonprofit National Commission on Correctional Health Care in 1992 said AIDS for those in state or federal prisons was more than 10 TIMES higher than those in the general population (195 for every 100,000, compared to 18 for every 100,000).
The inmates are predominately black, somehow, CDC is unable to make the connection of why black women account for 71.8% of new HIV cases among women.
Chicago, NY, and other large urban areas hide black male unemployment stats that goes north of 50%, therefore, the increase in jails and prison populations should not be a surprise.
Inmate populations will continue to rise as State, Federal, and Local governments dismantle public defender systems.
5. The problem is far deeper than the US prison system.
It permeates the entire population. A population that time after time after time allows itself to be convinced that this type of abuse is fair and justified.
It doesn't really matter that some proportion is able to recognise the truth and object, because it is obvious to any halfway objective observer that that proportion represents an ineffectual minority. A fact that is evidenced by the behaviour of the voters whenever given the choice between tough on criminals and anything resembling true reform.
6. Agreed. There are so many unspokens: prisons as community economic stimulus, profit and oppression,
job outsourcing to prisons, voter representation redistribution, school budgets drained for correction outlays, etc.
It appears, that voters fail to understand the social or the economical costs of the prison industry complex (PIC). Today, prisons and jails are more than likely the U.S. largest employer. Jails and prisons are also likely costing citizens more in tax subsidies and bonds than they are lead to believe. As citizens pay larger tax burdens to run jails and prisons, they are also losing jobs to them.
The prison system presents another form of the "What's with Kansas?" paradox, why are voters so willing to act against their own self-interest?
3. Many DUers prefer that jails and prisons be as brutal as possible
Edited on Wed Jul-23-08 06:19 AM by alcibiades_mystery
Then they turn around and "oppose" Bush's "torture" policies. We have a mote in our own eye on this board, with the lunatic punishment junkies in the majority.
There are plenty of DUers who would torture even minor criminals at the drop of a hat, so inundated and sadly taken they've become by the culture of punishment. It's a sad state of affairs when even self-selecting Democrats are revenge-culture torture freaks, laughing over rape, arguing for castration, and other such nonsenses. It's also no surprise that Cook County would devolve into (or continue being) the hellhole that it is given the weird victim's-rights/militarized-police/kill-'em-all bullshit that's been foisted on our culture since the late-1970's.
4. County Has Long Been Called A "Consentration Camp"
This jail is located in the worst areas of Chicago and driving past it gives anyone the creeps. But it's been said this is done on purpose...scare the shit out of people so they won't become inmates. In recent years as more jobs leave the city and gentrification is pushing many poor around, there's little opportunity to avoid the desperation that living in a depressed urban area presents. In some cases, a life inside the walls can be, sadly, preferable to what is outside. Also, for a long, long time, County has had a reputation of being run by gangs...going back to the Black P Stone Nation back in the 70s. It's a cycle that has increased over time and the stakes and violence gets higher than makes the place even more repressive and dangerous.
The bottom line...and this involves the entire "criminal justice system" is the overcrowding of prisons and what that says about both our society and the justice system. "Correctional" institutions don't correct, and in many ways leads those who get caught up in the violence of the inner city becoming hardened criminals. The mixing of small time offenders with the most violent also add to the problem. The need for reforms are long overdue...and to re-evaluate what our "penal" institutions are designed for...are they there to "correct" or as retribuion?
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