THE BLOG
09/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cook County Jail Realities

You might have recently heard about horrific conditions that allegedly exist at the Cook County Jail.

Maybe you read about unsanitary conditions, a culture that allows for excessive use of physical force and an inability to meet even minimum constitutional standards for inmates.

Those characterizations came after a 10-day tour of the jail by federal inspectors who I provided open access to any parts of the jail they wanted. They also had full briefings on many of the problems I found when I took office in December 2006 and both the quick-fix and long-term remedies I had developed - and in some cases, already implemented - to address these issues.

Unfortunately, the report failed to fully recognize the plethora of changes I've introduced in the 20 months I've been in office and the dramatic changes that even those federal inspectors recognized while touring the facility with us.

Sadly, none of those acknowledgments those inspectors verbalized to us made it into their report.

So allow me to explain just some of what has already changed.

1) For the first time in 10 years, the jail population has consistently stayed under capacity for most of this year. Our average daily population was 11,082 in 2002 and averages 9,255 this year.

2) A committee was formed to collect, inventory and analyze all inmate-made shanks and weapons recovered in the jail, with a goal of reducing both staff and inmate injuries. As a result of the specific focus on shanks and removing inmate opportunities to manufacture them, the number of shanks confiscated has plummeted from 482 through June 2007 to 247 through June 2008.

3) Dissatisfied with the pace and quality of internal affairs investigations in the office, I brought together a team of former U.S. Attorney and law enforcement experts to evaluate our internal affairs operations. As a result, we formed the Sheriff's Office of Professional Review - an independent, investigative body within our office, whose employees have aggressively pursued reports of abuse and other complaints. Since this group was formed, reports of use of force at the jail are down 28 percent for the first half of 2008.

4) Though the medical and psychiatric care of inmates is the responsibility of the Cook County Bureau of Health, I created a cabinet-level position of "medical liaison" to improve communication between my staff and those at Cermak Hospital, the county hospital facility located on the jail grounds. I also created an "Inmate Re-Entry Committee" to establish linkages between the jail and community-based mental health providers to ease the transition to civilian life for those inmates with mental health issues. I also hired Dr. Carl Alaimo, a nationally recognized expert in jail and prison psychiatric treatment and former physician at Cermak, to train our correctional officers on how to better recognize and supervise inmates with mental health issues.

5) Shortly after taking office, I began conducting weekly "accountability meetings." Every Tuesday morning, each of the jail's 11 division directors, among other jail leaders, is required to give detailed reports on all activities in their division. Inmate fights, weapons recovered, employee absentee rates and all other unusual occurrences must be explained. These meetings were the focus of a recent newspaper column.

6) Last year, I created the Criminal Intelligence Unit ­- staffed by experienced Sheriff's police detectives and correctional officers specially trained in recognizing gang activity and in developing gang intelligence. Their main task is to identify and prevent gang conflicts in the jail, a leading source of the kind of inmate-on-inmate violence frequently cited in the CRIPA report.

7) In June, we entered into an agreement to purchase an "early warning" computer system that will be operated by our Office of Professional Review and which is designed to identify and track officers who most frequently use force or are most frequently targets of inmate complaints about mistreatment.

8) Since taking office, I have demanded more stringent hiring standards for all positions. As an example, all candidates to be correctional officers must undergo psychological testing and a polygraph examination. These new requirements have already helped us to weed out candidates who may be prone to violence or misconduct and were recently the subject of a newspaper article.

9) A video surveillance system is in the process of being installed in the jail later this year. As CRIPA inspectors reported, such a system would help deter incidents of excessive force and provide an invaluable tool for our OPR staffers.

While I take full responsibility for problems identified within the confines and control of the Cook County Jail, it is important to note that there are numerous portions of the report covering medical care that unfairly blur the line between "Cook County Jail" and "Cermak Hospital." Likewise, more than 80 percent of all inmate grievances filed with our office regularly fall under the auspices health care. Again, our office has no control over Cermak Hospital's budget, employees, health care operations or strategies on care. Those criticisms should be directed at Cermak Hospital and those in control of the Cook County Bureau of Health Services, not our office.

Still, are there shortcomings on our part? Absolutely. Most problems have been addressed, but we are determined to bring even more change to the jail and plan to use the report by the inspection team as a road map to future successes. We welcome constructive criticism and are fully committed to addressing every concern highlighted, so as to avoid litigation.

I have established a division of Inspections and Audits within the Sheriff's Office of Professional Review and, in fact, have already begun an internal inspection and audit processes at various levels of the jail. This team will also be tasked with ensuring the listed policy and procedural changes within our control are instituted.

But we also recognize the need to highlight many of the successes overlooked or completely ignored by CRIPA inspectors in their recent report. Just as we plan to use their recommendations as a road map for future success, we also plan to build upon the achievements already gained in the last 20 months of my administration in order to ensure the jail is a safe environment for inmates and workers alike.