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 the jail’s “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’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.
Dart, clearly exasperated, called the suit “fantasies” and “a fictional account.”
“I don’t know where to start,” he told reporters.
The suit 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.
Another attorney representing the plaintiffs pointed the finger at jail officials who are not equipped to deal with the 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.”
Although one defendant who has already filed suit against jail administrators is seeking monetary damages, the other four plaintiffs are not.
“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.