BY TINA SFONDELES AND RUMMANA HUSSAIN Staff Reporters
In Cook County Jail speak, a correctional officer taking a detainee for an “elevator ride” means going out of camera view and severely beating them, lawyers alleged Thursday as they filed a class-action complaint against county officials alleging they failed to stop a “sadistic culture of brutality and violence.”
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and top jail administrators are named in the federal suit filed Thursday.
The tales of alleged violence and brutality came from interviews from more than 100 inmates at the jail for more than a year, according to lawyers at Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center.
“What we learned is that a culture of lawlessness and brutality infects the jail. These men, all of whom are waiting trial, are living under a constant risk of life threatening violence,” David Shapiro, an attorney at the justice center, told reporters.
“Officers slam people to the floor, stomp, kick and punch them often while they are handcuffed and shackled. After beating the shackled men until they lose consciousness, officers will drag them by their chains, banging their head on steel doors or allowing their head to slam into the concrete floor. Officers also order the men to attack, beat and stomp each other, instigating violence before the very individuals they are supposed to protect,” Shapiro said.
On Thursday, Dart vowed to fight the suit vigorously.
Not once in the last 4 ½ years when federal officials have had “unfettered” access to the jail did any of the allegations mentioned in the lawsuit arise, Dart said, adding that the feds have been “scratching their heads” over the claims like him.
Dart questioned the credibility of the lead plaintiff Tylon Hudson, who had eight of his 10 lawsuits against the county thrown out and is the only plaintiff seeking monetary relief. Hudson’s own lawyer dismissed two of his cases because they were “wholly frivolous” and last December, a federal judge said the inmate’s allegations are “more rooted in fantasy than reality,” Dart said.
Dart, who pointed that he has fired correctional officers for excessive force, said he never heard the numerous allegations — including the beating in the elevator — until he saw the lawsuit.
“Is this a jail? It is a jail. Do we have people here who have histories of violence? Yes, we do. Do we have violence that occurs in the jail? Yes, we do. It does occur. But do we have all sorts of policies in place to try and prevent people from perpetrating violence on each other?…Yes we do,” Dart said.
Preckwinkle’s office released a statement saying the Department of Justice court appointed monitors routinely observe the jail and file reports twice a year, “which do not appear to support these allegations.”
The suit also alleges victims of assaults at the jail are often placed in segregation as retaliatory punishment for speaking out about the violence. Shapiro said some are held in segregation for weeks and months at a time for allegedly minor disciplinary offenses, which he said can lead to “mental anguish torments” for those without mental illness and a crippling effect on those already suffering from mental illness.
“Men tortured in segregation hear those in neighboring cells screaming into the night as they descend into psychosis,” Shapiro said.
The class action suit alleges violations to the plaintiff’s right to due process of law and to be free from excessive force, threats of excessive force and sadistic treatment: “We are seeking an injunction that is going to end the rampant violence in this facility and keep our clients safe from savage attacks,” Shapiro said.
Another attorney representing the plaintiffs pointed the finger at jail officials who she said are not equipped to deal with an overcrowded jail.
“These things can only happen in a jail that is in an absolute crisis point, and this crisis needs the urgent attention of Cook County officials who are involved in the jail administration,” Sheila Bedi said. “For decades, the Cook County jail has been too big to succeed and county officials of various high levels of government have ignored the sadistic violence and lawlessness that permeates that building.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org