Cook County Jail lockdowns take a toll on inmates

By Jean Lotus Staff Reporter
Alan Mills of the Uptown People's Law Center. (Photo courtesy of Uptown People's Law Center)

Alan Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center. (Photo courtesy of Uptown People’s Law Center)

Juana Torres hasn’t been an inmate in Cook County Jail since 2012, but she still has nightmares about lockdowns.

“It’s in the middle of the day and you’re out in the day room and you hear all the doors popping open and the officer says you gotta go on lockdown. They rush you to your cell,” she said. “If you have a medical situation, good luck getting help screaming through the chuck hole because they don’t even come in the tier to check on you.”

The jail went on lockdown on Mother’s Day, May 8, when more than 400 jail guards and supervisors didn’t show up for work. The jail has been on lockdown three times in the last five months due to chronic understaffing — employees taking an unannounced sick or vacation day.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office says it’s a staffing and budget problem, exploited by some union workers after holidays such as the Super Bowl and New Year’s Eve. But some former staff members allege it’s a symptom of poor morale.

On Jan. 12 this year, 142 employees did not come to work, citing illness, family emergencies or the weather. The facility was put on lockdown.

“While placed on lockdown inmates will be allowed movement for medical reasons, emergencies, and visitation only. Discharges will also be processed,” the sheriff’s office posted on its website. The number of employees usually calling in sick is around 80, the announcement said.

“Being locked in your cell all day long is bad for people; it’s horrific,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the nonprofit legal clinic the Uptown People’s Law Center. “It’s particularly bad on holidays, which is when this happens, when you want to be around other people, but you’re trapped in your cell.”

Mills said the small cells at Cook County are “not meant to stay in 24 hours a day.” The inmates are supposed to spend between four to eight hours outside of their cell, Mills said.

“It’s a civil rights issue, but it’s not an illegal issue. There’s no constitutional violation, it’s more bad corrections policy. There’s just no reason to treat people this way,” he said. “Lockdowns build depression and resentment.”

There are around 8,500 inmates at the jail. Mills thinks eliminating paid bail would drastically cut the overstuffed jail population.

“We simply have way too many people locked up,” Mills said. “We lock up people for 30-60 days up to five years. And they’re only there because they can’t afford $100 to get out (on bail).”

The Cook County Board asked the sheriff’s department for answers about chronic spells of absenteeism at their meeting May 10.

“It’s challenging,” said Undersheriff Zelda Whittler. “And yes, we do have corrective disciplinary procedures in place.”

All officers, based on a collective bargaining agreement, are required to request time off in advance, Whittler said.

“If that time is approved, then we have a calendar, that’s how we know what staff will be off for that day.”

Staff are required to give at least 48 hours notice, Whittler said. She said staff who played hooky made it hard on inmates, as well as their colleagues who showed up for work.

“What we’re dealing with are people who are calling in the day of, or right prior to shift, asking for day off. They did not follow the correct process,” she said. “We will address those individuals on a case-by-case basis to determine what [disciplinary] actions should occur.”

Cook County Undersheriff Zelda Whittler answers questions about jail absenteeism at the Cook County Board meeting May 10. (Photo courtesy Cook County Board)

Cook County Undersheriff Zelda Whittler answers questions about jail absenteeism at the Cook County Board meeting May 10. (Photo courtesy Cook County Board)

But some former employees allege the jail’s scheduling system is unfair and inconsistent. Days off are sometimes denied based on lack of seniority.

“Working a holiday gets you a day on the books, but what good is it if they deny you a day off?” wrote a former employee who requested anonymity.

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st Dist.) said the county is working on a plan to get absenteeism under control in the jail. Boykin has made the jail one of his concerns as a commissioner.

“The sheriff is focusing on it like a laser,” Boykin said. “They have a plan and it may involve progressive discipline for individuals who are habitual offenders of the policy. We’ve got to make sure individuals can come in and visit the detainees on Mother’s Day,” Boykin said.

Torres, 40, of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood is a mother of five children. She said she’d been incarcerated six times for drugs, stealing a vehicle and aggravated battery.

“Sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for a few months,” she said. “I remember I was in there on either Christmas or Thanksgiving and [a lockdown] happened because they were understaffed.

“Any day is a bad day to be in jail, but holidays are horrible.”

In the small cells in the jail’s tiers, prisoners are kept two or three people to a room.

“That third person has to sleep on the floor, and because there’s a rodent problem there you usually wake up with something crawling on you.”

Torres said she’d prefer to be on lockdown in the open dorm rooms of the Lincoln Correctional Center state penitentiary.

“You didn’t feel so enclosed. You can come out to use the bathroom and there’s open space. There are people to talk to. It’s easier,” she said.

Torres said she has been off of drugs for years.

“My kids are my therapy,” she said. But memories of life behind bars still linger.

“I swear every night I still have nightmares about being locked in a cell and I can’t breathe. I have bad anxiety because of it,” Torres said.


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Cook County Jail lockdowns take a toll on inmates —