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Saturday, July 19, 2008

U.S. blasts jail conditions

Sheriff calls 98 pages of criticism 'unprofessional,' defends reform program

In a scathing report released Thursday, federal authorities said that a culture exists at Cook County Jail in which inmates are systematically beaten by guards and medical care is so substandard that some inmates have died.

The Justice Department threatened legal action if steps aren't taken to ensure that inmates' basic constitutional rights aren't routinely violated.

In the 98-page report, the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division called the complex violent and pointed to a raft of problems ranging from unsanitary conditions to inadequate mental health care and suicide-prevention measures.

At a news conference, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald called on the Cook County Board and Sheriff Tom Dart to fix a dangerous jail that is "woefully inadequate."

"Everything we've seen from them suggests they recognize what the problem is," Fitzgerald said. "Now the rubber hits the road."

Dart, who is responsible for the jail, blasted the findings, saying he felt betrayed after his office fully cooperated with the probe, only to have the report ignore their reform efforts.

"The thing that I found so disturbing was that I welcomed them in here," Dart said in an interview at his office at the West Side jail. "I gave them access to everything with the hope that they would be yet another set of eyes, that they'd come up with a couple of suggestions about how I could do things better.

"For them to come out with criticism and then flavor it with some horribly incendiary language and try to paint this picture that we don't care or we don't know is completely inaccurate and horribly unprofessional."

The largest facility of its kind in the country, the jail long has been criticized as understaffed and overcrowded. In 2004 a special Cook County grand jury condemned the handling of a 1999 mass beating of inmates by correctional officers, and inmates regularly complain to criminal court judges about their treatment there.

For more than a quarter-century, the jail has been monitored by a federal judge as a result of the settlement of a lawsuit over overcrowding. But the Justice Department report delivered to Cook County last week made it clear that oversight hasn't been enough.

The report detailed numerous incidents in which guards used excessive force in response to verbal insults, failures by inmates to follow instructions or violence against jail staff. Inmates have been punched, stomped, choked and struck with objects, often by multiple officers, suffering black eyes, broken jaws, loosened teeth, fractured noses and ribs, and head trauma, the report said.

"We believe that, despite management's efforts, a culture still exists at [the jail] in which the excessive and inappropriate use of physical force is too often tolerated," the report said.

The Justice Department faulted jail management for failing to investigate guard abuses fast and effectively. [Mark Godsey]

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