Federal judge: Cook County Jail bosses work 'diligently' to tackle violence

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Despite complaints from inmates, authorities are working “diligently” to tackle violence at Cook County Jail, a federal judge says | (Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times file photo)

Cook County Jail may not be The Ritz, but Sheriff Tom Dart works hard to combat violence by staff and inmates, a federal judge has found.

Backed by some of Chicago’s leading civil rights attorneys and citing what they said were sanctioned beatings by guards and gang members, a group of inmates in 2013 filed a class-action lawsuit against both the sheriff and the county, alleging they perpetuated a “violent and lawless” culture behind bars.

But U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall late Tuesday dealt a severe blow to the inmates’ case, refusing to impose a preliminary injunction that would require the county to draw up new plans to tackle jail violence.

Though Kendall allowed the inmates’ lawsuit to proceed, her 50-page ruling made it clear she believes that a federal monitor who has been overseeing conditions at the jail since 2010 is doing enough.

Evidence presented at a nine-day hearing earlier this year showed that county authorities have “worked diligently to eliminate violence in the jail and have opened the facility to frequent, regular review from four monitors who report the conditions and the incidents of potential violence directly to the court,” Kendall wrote.

And the judge was highly critical of the case put on by lawyers for the five inmates who brought the suit. Though they had alleged the “horrific treatment of detainees” — including unprovoked attacks by guards, guards beating inmates in elevators to avoid being captured on camera, and guards turning a blind eye to gang beatings — Kendall wrote that “there is a significant disconnect between plaintiffs’ arguments and the facts that were presented in court.”

Evidence showed that most cases of alleged abuse were investigated, and that abuse often resulted in punishment for guards, Kendall wrote, adding that the jail has for more than a year been in “substantial compliance” with 77 rules monitored by the federal overseer, jail expert Susan McCampbell.

Kendall also criticized the testimony of the inmates’ expert witness, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, for what she called “significant flaws in its methodology and analysis.” Schwartz improperly relied upon accounts of abuse given by 120 inmates who were not under oath, and on the work of lawyers and law students from Northwestern’s MacArthur Justice Center, the judge wrote.

“It is unrealistic to expect that no incidents will occur, but it is expected that when they do occur they will be handled in a constitutional manner,” Kendall wrote. “The evidence presented at hearing demonstrated that defendants have worked diligently – and with marked success in many areas – at combatting the danger that exists at the jail.”

Citing a ruling in a landmark 1981 case, she concluded, “The jail is not a pleasant place to live, but ‘the Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons.’ ”

Alan Mills, an attorney from the Uptown People’s Law Center who helped bring the case, said he was disappointed by the ruling but that the inmates will fight on and still expect to eventually prevail at trial.

“We showed that there is a pattern of brutality that needed to be stopped,” he said. “We’re sorry that it will carry on while the case progresses to trial.”

But Dart welcomed the ruling and said he’d been “outraged” by the allegations in the case, which he said the judge agreed were “not supported by the evidence.”

“We have the most open jail anyone has ever seen,” he said. “That’s why these allegations by Northwestern were so outrageously reckless.”

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