Probe Finds Abuses In Illinois Jail

A federal investigation has found several abuses at the nation's largest single-site county jail. The investigation found inmates in Illinois' Cook County Jail were not protected from being harmed by other inmates and staff.

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A dark picture today of life in the Cook County Jail. The U.S. attorney in Chicago found use of excessive force by guards and poor medical and mental healthcare. That U.S. attorney was Patrick Fitzgerald, the same man who served as special prosecutor in the CIA leak case. As a result of his latest investigation, Fitzgerald says living conditions in the Cook County Jail are unconstitutional.

From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: The Cook County Jail is the largest single-site county jail in the country, with nearly 10,000 adult inmates inside it each day charged with crimes and unable to make bail while awaiting trial. Close to 100,000 people are sent to the Cook County Jail each year. And conditions for those people who have not yet even been convicted of crimes, according to a new investigation, are horrific.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (Chicago U.S. Attorney): People have died.

SCHAPER: Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

Mr. FITZGERALD: People have been amputated. People have been beaten. People have been hospitalized for reasons that shouldn't happen. And at a certain point, that has to stop.

SCHAPER: Fitzgerald today announced the result of a 17-month long investigation of the Cook County Jail conducted by his office in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. The 98-page report details living conditions that Fitzgerald says are not just unconstitutional but that threaten health, safety and lives of inmates. He says the most serious allegations come from a culture of abuse by jail staff.

Mr. FITZGERALD: And you look at the examples that are cited, there's clearly examples of corrections officers and organized groups beating inmates to retaliate for verbal abuse and people going to hospital for it.

SCHAPER: And Fitzgerald says the investigation found some medical horror stories.

Mr. FITZGERALD: There are examples in there of someone who wasn't treated for a gunshot wound and sepsis resulted and there was a death result, and also a person who resulted in an unnecessary amputation. When you're talking about unnecessary amputations and deaths, you have a serious problem.

SCHAPER: Patrick Fitzgerald also slammed the jail's mental health care, saying that inmate suicides could have been prevented. And he cites other problems, ranging from an abundance of contraband, including weapons, to deteriorating physical conditions of the jail. In a lengthy written statement, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart acknowledged some problems, saying that staff at the jail sometimes find themselves wedded to policies, procedures and attitudes that over the years have become antiquated and counterproductive. Dart adds that his office will use the findings as a roadmap to address operational deficiencies and to improve living conditions at the jail.

But the statement then goes on to pick apart the investigative report, saying it fails to mention corrective action that has already been taken, that it often relies on inflammatory language and draws conclusions based on anecdotes and hearsay from inmates. And Sheriff Dart categorically rejects allegations of systemic violations of civil rights at the jail. But such conditions appear to be nothing new at Cook County Jail.

Mr. MALCOLM YOUNG (Executive Director, John Howard Association of Illinois): We were not surprised by many of the findings.

SCHAPER: Malcolm Young is Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a jail and prison watchdog group appointed by the federal courts years ago to monitor severe overcrowding at the jail. He says in past years, conditions at Cook County Jail may have been even worse than they are now. But he praises today's report hoping, with the U.S. Attorney involved, Cook County officials will move to address the problems.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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