Abu Ghraib in Chicago

July 25, 2008

Bob Quellos details the allegations in a Justice Department report on conditions at Chicago's Cook County Jail.

A REPORT released this month detailing ongoing human rights abuses against prisoners at Cook County Jail in Chicago reads like a horror story out of Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

The 98-page study, issued by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice on July 17, comes in the middle of a summer that has already been marked by the escalating pace of killings by the Chicago Police Department.

The report goes so far as to call the jail "unconstitutional" and describes a facility that fails to adequately provide prisoners with proper sanitary conditions, medical and mental health care, suicide prevention and fire safety precautions.

Much of the study details inadequate health care provided by the jail's hospital. For instance, in 2006, one woman died a day after being booked at the jail. The report states, "During intake, she reported a history of heroin addiction, yet staff failed to document her drug use and history of addiction...The next day she was found dead in her cell." The likely cause of death was listed as withdrawal syndrome.

A Justice Department report describes Cook County Jail as "unconstitutional"
A Justice Department report describes Cook County Jail as "unconstitutional"

In 2007, a man suffered head trauma during a seizure, "which was likely caused by his not receiving 11 of his 31 prescribed doses of his anticonvulsant medication," the Justice Department said. Another man had his leg amputated as a result of a bone infection due to inadequate care. Meanwhile, the state's budget for the hospital was cut from $40 million in 2006 to $31 million in 2007, eliminating 70 jobs.

The report also details a culture of physical abuse by prison guards. In one incident, a mentally ill man exposed himself to a female officer, and in response, the study says, "he was taken to a clothing room where a group of officers handcuffed him and then proceeded to hit and kick him after he was restrained." The man was eventually sent to an outside hospital with severe head trauma.

Days after the release of the Justice Department report, a video surfaced showing former inmate Noel Padilla handcuffed inside his cell last August. In the video, Padilla is removing items from his cell until the video skips. Suddenly, Padilla is seen on the ground in handcuffs and saying, "He came in swinging on us, man."

The missing video spans the time period of a beating by guards. Describing the incident, Padilla told a local Chicago news station, "At least eight more officers ran inside, and they just started beating me, stomping me, kicking me, punching me, stomping me, kicking me, punching me."

While many in Chicago were disturbed at the recent finding, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart had a different view. "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," Dart said.

But Justice Department criticism of Cook County Jail isn't new. The Feds have been overseeing the facility for over 25 years as a result of a lawsuit brought on by prison overcrowding. Only four years ago, a grand jury condemned the jail for mass beatings of prisoners--including the use of un-muzzled dogs--in 1999 and the cover-up that followed.

In response to the findings, Human Rights Watch stated, "Beatings, un-muzzled dogs, terrified detainees? Sounds like Abu Ghraib. But in fact, it was in Chicago's Cook County Jail in 1999."

Almost 10 year later, not much has changed.

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