Overcrowding Prisons

Civil rights class action suit documents culture of brutality and violence at Cook County Jail

Overcrowded conditions contribute to out-of-control officers and barbaric conditions

As a result of a sadistic culture of brutality and violence, 2,000 men in Cook County Jail’s highest security units live under a constant risk of life threatening violence, and Cook County elected leaders and jail administrators have failed to take reasonable measures to protect the men awaiting trial, according to a civil rights class action lawsuit filed Feb. 27 in U.S. District Court.

Sheriff Tom Dart, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and top jail administrators were named as defendants in the lawsuit filed on behalf of people housed at the jail by attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the Uptown People’s Law Center. 

“The sadistic violence and brutality at the Cook County Jail is not the work of a few rogue officers,” the lawsuit states. “It is a systemic problem that has remained unchecked at the highest levels of Cook County government. The Defendants have had actual knowledge of this pattern of violence for years – if not decades. Yet they have still failed to protect people confined in the jail with safe from brutally abusive correctional officers and violence on the living units.”  

Press release (pdf)

Cook County Jail class action Case No. 13CV08752 (pdf)

Memorandum in support of class certification (pdf)

Updated - 02/27/20014

Attorneys Demand Cook County Board Update Antiquated County Jail Computer System

Attorneys asked a federal court (pdf) today to require the Cook County Board of Commissioners to appropriate funds they already authorized for a new computer system to manage the daily operations at the Cook County Jail. The antiquated system that is currently in place has a history of crashing and could lead to overcrowding if the Jail cannot accurately track its detainees.

For the past two fiscal years, Cook County Sherriff Tom Dart has requested funds from the Board to update the more than 30 year-old, DOS-based system, which is responsible for tracking the day-to-day operations of the jail, including the population, availability of beds and the varying daily schedules of 9,000 detainees. The Board approved the request for a $2.7 million upgrade in February, but has yet to authorize the funds.

MacArthur Justice Center attorneys for men affected by overcrowding at the jail are concerned that without a functioning system to accurately monitor detainees, the Jail may violate the 1982 Consent Decree, which prohibits overcrowding - when prisoners must sleep on the floor - by even one person.

The need for a new computer system is urgent, as a crash paralyzes the Jail. As recently as March 15, the system - which is not backed-up internally or externally - went down for 18 hours and greatly disrupted jail operations. As a result, detainees were late for court dates, and releases and admissions were significantly delayed. Sherriff Dart has expressed apprehension that the computer system will crash again or otherwise become inoperative, making it difficult or impossible to efficiently manage the Jail.

On April 1, 2009, the Board is expected to meet to deliberate on whether it will finally appropriate the money it authorized for a new system. If it fails to do so, the motion filed today asks Judge Virginia Kendall to issue an order directing them to authorize those funds.

Updated - 03/31/2009

Judge to Investigate Cook County Jail Conditions

Alarmed by persistent overcrowding at Cook County Jail, a federal judge decided today that she needed to see Cook County Jail conditions for herself and scheduled a visit for February 8. U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall's decision came after she ordered County officials in November to submit a proposal for alleviating overcrowding, which violates a 25-year-old consent decree.

"I'm willing to roll up my sleeves to make sure the consent decree is a healthy animal," said Judge Kendall. "But if we don't reach a point where overcrowding is addressed, I will be the judge and make the ruling that needs to be made."

At today's hearing, County officials presented their proposed solutions, which ranged from inmates sharing beds, also known as "hot bunking," to moving psychiatric ward inmates to a different location.

"Many of these solutions will not result in a safer, healthier jail," said Locke Bowman of the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents jail inmates harmed by the overcrowding problem. "We can't put a band aid on this problem. County officials need to stop disobeying the 1982 consent decree and come up with long-term solutions to address overcrowding."

Judge Kendall scheduled another hearing to discuss the ongoing issue for February 29, 2008, at 9:30 am.

Press release (pdf)

Updated - 02/01/2008

Judge Orders Cook County to Fix Jail Overcrowding

Alarmed by escalating overcrowding at Cook County Jail, a federal judge today gave County officials 45 days to submit a proposal for alleviating the conditions, which violate a 25-year-old consent decree.

"It is unacceptable," U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall said about the chronic overcrowding problem. "This is no longer a budget problem. It is a constitutional violation."

Kendall ordered County officials to report to her by January 15 on how they plan to eliminate the overcrowding. The ruling came during a hearing on a motion brought by attorneys for jail inmates (pdf) who are seeking to enforce a 1982 federal consent decree prohibiting overcrowding at the jail. Last month, more 580 men in the jail were forced to sleep on floors, promoting unsanitary conditions that create public health risks. The overcrowding has been linked to diseases, such as CA-MRSA, a rare and deadly staph infection strain that has spiked in Chicago in recent months.

"Three things are obvious, "said Locke Bowman of the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents jail inmates harmed by the overcrowding problem. "First, conditions at the jail are woefully overcrowded and unhealthy, which represents a wider threat to public health. Second, these conditions are blatantly illegal because they violate a 1982 consent decree. And third, county officials have flagrantly refused to obey this court order. Today's ruling indicates that that this defiance must stop."

Updated - 11/30/2007