Four decades ago, overcrowding and poor staffing in the Cook County Jail led to federal court oversight of the sprawling complex on the Southwest Side.

But last week, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall lifted that oversight, saying the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has made all of the improvements that were set out in an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in 2010.

 

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. | Sun-Times file photo

Cara Smith, chief of policy for Sheriff Tom Dart, said Cook County is the largest jail in the United States to get out from under a federal consent decree. The jail systems in New York City and Los Angeles remain under such federal oversight, she said.

The pact with the Justice Department grew out of a 2008 report that gave the jail failing marks for the safety of inmates, medical care, sanitary conditions, fire safety and guards’ use of excessive force.

In a statement Monday, Dart touted a list of improvements, including:

  • Installing 2,400 cameras around the jail complex so sheriff’s supervisors can review incidents involving inmates and guards.
  • Expanding medical and mental-health treatment facilities.
  • Increasing the size of the correctional staff and boosting training time.

At a recent court hearing Kendall said the sheriff’s staff took the right approach to the consent decree. “They didn’t look at it as an accusation against them, but, rather, looked at it as a challenge to fix and to work towards improvement for the protection of the pretrial detainees, and that attitude is just so refreshing and remarkable,” she said.

The jail first came under federal oversight in 1974, when it was bursting at the seams. Now, about 7,600 inmates are housed on the jail campus near 26th and California. The jail is designed to hold about 11,000 detainees.

In 2007, the Justice Department launched its investigation into allegations of abuse and unconstitutional confinement. The sheriff’s office entered into the agreement with the federal government in 2010.

As improvements were being made, some critics still said a “culture of brutality” continued at the jail.

In 2013, Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center sued the county, calling for additional measures to deal with jailhouse violence. But Kendall, in a 2015 ruling denying a request for a preliminary injunction, wrote “the defendants have worked diligently, and with marked success in many areas, in combatting the danger that exists at the jail.”

Last year, MacArthur agreed to dismiss the lawsuit and pay the county $45,500 in court-related costs, records show.

Dart said it was clear that reforms were needed before he took office in 2007.

“Prior to the DOJ report, I began a systematic overhaul of the jail,” he said in his statement. “Today we have systems and structures that are looked at as a beacon for correctional facilities around the country.”