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In Chicago, The Night Inmates Didn't Want To Escape

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The snow that buried the U.S. this week wreaked all kinds of spectacular havoc. Drivers were trapped by snow overnight on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, and Cook County Jail declared a civil emergency for the first time in more than 30 years. Host Scott Simon talks to Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart about the effects of this week's blizzard on Chicago's Cook County Jail.


The snow that buried the United States this week wreaked all kinds of spectacular havoc. Drivers were trapped by snow overnight on Chicago's Lakeshore Drive, and Cook County Jail declared a civilian emergency for the first time in more than 30 years.

We're joined now by the sheriff of Cook County, Thomas Dart. And, Sheriff Dart, thanks very much for being with us.

Sheriff THOMAS DART (Cook County, Illinois): Scott, thanks for having me on.

SIMON: You first put the jail on lockdown, I guess. Was that on Tuesday night?

Sheriff DART: Yes, we had anticipated with the snow we were going to have hard time getting employees in. And so, as a result of that, we had to make sure there was not going to be a lot of movement with the detainees.

SIMON: And people couldnt have visitors except for lawyers, that sort of thing?

Sheriff DART: Yeah. And frankly, we were not overly concerned that there was going to be a lot of visitors that otherwise would have come out that night, cause nobody was coming out.

SIMON: Yeah. Now, I understand - we certainly read that were perhaps as many as five prisoners who were set to go out on Tuesday night, but took a look at the snow...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...and thought the jail was better?

Sheriff DART: Yeah, you know, it's rare occasion where you have people that really want stay with us for any length of time that they have to. And in this situation, we had six different detainees who were to be released, and when they looked out the door they thought otherwise. And we set aside a division that I had closed down and we put cots and the like in there, and we offered it to people that had no where to go.

SIMON: Wow, so they weren't prisoners but they were staying inside the jail.

Sheriff DART: Technically were no longer prisoners, exactly. They were just individuals who had been in our jail. And, given what we are facing out there, this was the best option for them.

SIMON: Could you get food in and out?

Sheriff DART: Yeah. We're so large that we have more than enough food to last us probably a week, if we actually literally had nothing else coming in. So we had food and heat.

We had problems with the electricity at one point and we were able to get a generator going there. And then we have a boot camp we operate, as well, and we lost all power and heating there. So we had to transfer all of them over to the jail. We also set up another dorm for our employees, so employees who did not want to go home could stay with us - get through the snow and be here for their next shift.

SIMON: Boy, these are the kinds of things that I bet we dont think about.

Sheriff DART: No, you know, it interesting, Scott. And realities are that a jail is almost like a small town. In this state, we'd be one of the larger towns, about 10,000 inmates and 4,000 employees over here at the jail. So it's so many different moving parts: feeding people, moving people, hospital visits, court calls. So we had to think through all of that.

But then, frankly, thinking about the detainees that we were going to be cutting loose - that we couldnt just throw people out into snow drifts -especially, at least a couple of the six that we had stay with us, they had some serious mental health issues. It would have been unconscionable just to say, you know, good luck out there. So we kept them here for a day. Then we found another location, and warming stations, and places that that they want to go to and we transported them over there.

SIMON: Things back to normal now, Sheriff?

Sheriff DART: As normal as this jail ever gets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sheriff DART: Ah, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois. Thanks so much.

Sheriff DART: Thanks so much, Scott.

SIMON: This is NPR News. .

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