Society

Chicago’s Cook County Jail “A Powder Keg Ready to Blow”

| by Allison Geller

Chicago’s notorious Cook County Jail, also the country’s largest with 9,700 inmates, is under increasing scrutiny as budgets are slashed and inmate levels rising to unmanageable levels.

A full-page advertisement placed by the Teamsters union that represents Cook County’s staff in yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times read:  "A MESSAGE TO OUR OUTSTANDING LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS AT THE COOK COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS … Teamsters Local 700 is PROUD to be your union. We FIGHT daily to protect your rights. We will always STAND by you.”

The Illinois Herald called the jail “a powder keg ready to blow.” Also called the nation’s largest mental health facility, only half sarcastically, mental health spending in Illinois has been drastically cut in recent years. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told Think Progress that that is a major reason for the jail’s overpopulation and short staffing.

“Conservative numbers are 25, but we think it’s closer to 30 or 35 percent of our jail population that has a mental illness… so we’ve effectively become the largest mental health hospital in the country,” Dart said.

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“I don’t know anybody who could say that someone suffering from serious mental illness should be put in a tiny, confined area that is populated by another individual who has a mental illness — who you don’t know and may or may not have some issues with violence as well — be medicated and treated as if you were a criminal.”

The Illinois Herald details the other problems with Cook County Jail— and there are many. Dozens of torture cases have been filed against Cook County; one study indicates that there are more innocent people in the jail than guilty; the jail treats its roughly 3,000 mentally ill patients by heavily medicating them; and Chicago’s corrupted low-income housing program has led to a homeless population of 105,000, who may easily wind up in jail due to their situation.

Additionally, even people found innocent of crimes in Cook County are led back to the jail instead of walking free. This happens only to people who cannot afford to post bond.

WBEZ reported that Brian Otero spent almost two years in Cook County Jail waiting to go to trail. He was found not guilty of a burglary charge.

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After the trial, Otero was led back into a holding cell for “processing,” where he was attacked by his cellmates.

“To this day I got a torn ligament in my hand, but I did not seek or ask for no medical attention.  I just let it be because I was just trying to hurry up and get out as fast as I can,” Otero said.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the jail houses dozens of inmates who have been waiting for years for their trials. Andre Holmes has been sitting in Cook County Jail to go to trial for rape— which he was accused of ten years ago.

As the Teamsters’ ad indicates, the situation at Cook County Jail is becoming desperate for inmates and staff alike.

Sources: Illinois Herald, Think Progress, WBEZ, Chicago Sun-Times