Demolition has begun on one of three buildings slated to be razed at Cook County Jail. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Cook County plans to knock down 3 jail buildings to save millions

SHARE Cook County plans to knock down 3 jail buildings to save millions
SHARE Cook County plans to knock down 3 jail buildings to save millions

Cook County Jail is downsizing.

County officials announced Wednesday a plan to demolish three buildings in the sprawling jail complex near 26th and California — a move intended to save $188 million in capital costs over the next decade.

Demolition has begun on one building known as Division 3, which can house 360 inmates.

Demolition dates have yet to be set for Division 1 — which has a capacity of 1,250 and once held serial killer John Wayne Gacy and infamous gangster Al Capone — and the much smaller Division 17, which can hold 160 people.

All three buildings have been vacant for months.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle spoke Wednesday in front of a giant hole punched in Division 3’s brick facade at a news conference that promised to draw back the veil on a “a major announcement.”

The bit of theater aimed to build momentum for a major item on Preckwinkle’s agenda: decreasing what for years has been a steady flow of inmates into the jail to a trickle.

She has a stalwart partner in Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who joined her Wednesday — two weeks after he called for the abolishment of the state’s cash bond system in favor of something similar to Washington, D.C.’s system, in which about 90 percent of detainees are released without having to put up money.

“Jail is for violent people,” Dart said Wednesday. “For non-violent people . . . they don’t need to be here.”

The jail population on Wednesday stood at 8,058 inmates.

“We’ve been able to substantially reduce the population of the jail,” Preckwinkle said. “The number is still far too high, but it’s come down more than 20 percent since 2010 when I came into office.”

The county expects the demolitions will also save $3 million in operating costs during the 2017 fiscal year that begins on Dec. 1.

Preckwinkle also applauded efforts to use electronic monitoring to keep people out of jail — an option that, on average, costs about $31 a day compared with the $150 per day it costs to house an inmate in jail.

When Dart took office in 2007 he struggled with overpopulation problems that resulted in inmates taking turns using the same bed in eight-hour shifts — a practice known as “hot bunking.”

Dart predicted the demolitions will be accompanied by a drop in his jail staff. The jobs, he said, would be phased out through attrition, not cuts.

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