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Lawsuit accuses Cook County of allowing ‘sadistic culture’ at jail

Lawsuit by MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University decried a “culture of lawlessness” at two maximum-security divisions

By Jason Meisner and Steve Schmadeke
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Despite more than three decades of litigation and oversight by federal judges, Cook County Jail remains a “civic embarrassment” where violence is so pervasive that correctional officers take inmates on “elevator rides” – code for beatings out of view of security cameras, said lawyers who filed a proposed class-action lawsuit Thursday.

The lawsuit by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University decried a “culture of lawlessness” at two of the jail’s maximum-security divisions, backing up the claim with sworn statements from nearly 90 inmates, some of whom alleged they were beaten by officers using handcuffs as brass knuckles.

One inmate who alleged he was beaten and pepper-sprayed by officers wrote in his statement that a high-ranking jail official told him, “Where does the Constitution say we’re not supposed to be beating?”

But Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs the jail, called the federal lawsuit a “fictitious novel” and said he would complain to Northwestern officials about what he called baseless allegations brought by the legal clinic.

“This thing is so outrageous on so many levels…I don’t know where to start,” he told reporters at his offices at the West Side jail. “We are going to fight this so vigorously... At the end of the day, though…the taxpayers are going to be on the hook again for defending yet another frivolous lawsuit.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is also named in the suit, issued a statement saying her office takes the complaint seriously and referring to her efforts to reduce the jail population -- a key reason for the rampant violence, according to the lawsuit. Preckwinkle has pushed to place more nonviolent offenders on electronic monitoring and sought to take the politically risky step of seeking to take control of the program from the sheriff.

Since 1980, the often overcrowded jail, the largest in the country, has been run under a consent decree with oversight by federal judges. A monitor files reports with the court twice a year and noted progress and “substantial compliance” at the jail in December except for issues such as overcrowding at the county-run jail hospital. It currently houses 8,800 inmates, down from more than 10,000 it frequently held last summer for the first time since 2007.

The suit by the MacArthur Justice Center, however, alleged that rather than preventing violence at the jail, the county writes it “off in monetary settlements once the bones are broken.”

At a news conference, David Shapiro, an attorney for the legal clinic, called the jail ”an ongoing bloodbath.”

“If you think it is safe, you might as well think the world is flat,” he said.

The lawsuit alleged that “a violent, sadistic, cruel and sometimes racist and homophobic bravado pervades the ranks” of correctional officers.

”The sadistic violence and brutality in...the Cook County Jail are not the work of a few rogue officers,” the suit said. “Instead, these violations demonstrate systemic problems that have remained unchecked at the highest levels of Cook County government.”

Shapiro said the lawyers uncovered the “hellish” conditions at the jail about a year and a half ago while there researching an unrelated suit about parolees.

Shocked by the stories of violence told by detainees, the legal clinic began filing Freedom of Information requests with county and state officials seeking disciplinary histories, grievances and other records, Shapiro said.

Attorneys also sent letters to hundreds of inmates in maximum-security Divisions 9 and 10 asking about their treatment, Shapiro said. Lawyers interviewed more than 100 inmates and wound up taking signed declarations from 88 inmates who claimed to be victims of or witnesses to abuse.

Sheila Bedi, another MacArthur attorney, said Cook County taxpayers pay for the culture of violence in the jail. In the last three years alone, the county has paid out more than $9 million related to about 250 civil rights lawsuits stemming from jail abuse, she said.

Bedi said the horrific conditions have a lasting effect on inmates, most of whom will eventually be returned to society scarred by the experience.

“What will their lives be like when they return home to their families and communities?” she said.

Dart emphasized that no one had heard of these allegations – not the attorneys representing the men in their criminal cases, not the federal judge or monitor overseeing jail conditions and not his own office – until the lawsuit was filed.

“They’re suggesting that for over a year, they’ve been floating around over here, hearing all of these horrific, horrific stories,” Dart said. “And then, somehow these people who are so concerned about their clients for an entire year did not say a word to one person.”

The sheriff also noted that two of the five named plaintiffs in the proposed class-action suit are being held on murder charges, including one accused in the shooting death of a Chicago police officer, and that another plaintiff was a serial litigator who has had numerous other lawsuits thrown out.

Dart said stabbings and fights at the jail have fallen sharply. He also boasted that the jail is the only one in the country with a transgender unit and that correctional officers receive advanced mental health training for how to deal with many of the detainees.

His office provided figures showing that as of last month the two jail divisions at issue were both under capacity with a total of 1,723 inmates in space that can accommodate 1,790.

Another lawyer involved in the suit, Alan Mills, legal director for the Uptown People’s Law Office, said while conditions on upper floors of the two maximum-security divisions are bad enough, “there is a lower circle of hell” in the basement where inmates held in segregation spend 23 to 24 hours a day in solitary confinement.