Cook County’s inmates in wheelchairs face challenges and pose risks in jail

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Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has said more guns are recovered on Chicago’s streets than in any other city in the country. While overall crime remains relatively low, the city’s gun violence continues to cause havoc. From Jan. 1 through Thursday, there were at least 235 gun-related homicides in the city. During the next few months, the Sun-Times will explore gun violence in detail, going beyond the grisly weekly numbers to report on what drives the cycle of violence. We also will examine potential solutions and solicit ideas from the community. We invite you to follow our Chicago’s Arms Race series for more in-depth coverage in words, photos, video and data.

Inside the Cook County Jail, a wheelchair can be a weapon.

An inmate in a wheelchair can remove a handrail and turn it into a club.

A seat-adjustment handle can be fashioned into a shank.

And a shank can be hidden in an inmate’s colostomy bag.

These are facts everyone knows inside the special units of the jail where men in wheelchairs are held while awaiting trial.

Recently, there were about 60 men housed there.

Most of them were in wheelchairs as a result of the gun violence that city leaders say has lessened but still plagues parts of Chicago, a city where more than 1,800 people were shot last year.

Gun violence has stripped many of these men of the use of their legs, their bladders, their bowels.

They complain about how gun violence upends neighborhoods.

Yet, many of these men are themselves awaiting trial on gun charges. Three such inmates agreed to speak to a reporter. All of them were using wheelchairs at the time of the crimes they are accused of committing.

Their stories underscore the havoc, both human and financial, that the growing gun crisis is wreaking throughout the city and the region. A crisis that is fed by a steady stream of guns flowing onto city streets, even as police seize more of them every year. A crisis not susceptible to magic-bullet solutions or easy certainties. A crisis so severe that even getting gunned down and put in a wheelchair forever offers no guarantee for dozens of men that they won’t pick up guns and commit violence again and again.

Authorities say one of the inmates in a wheelchair, Steven Bramlett, punched a woman in the stomach and slashed her leather Pelle Pelle jacket on Christmas Day last year. At his home, officers found a Marlin .30-caliber rifle. Bramlett told police his grandfather left him the weapon.

He was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon. Bramlett pleaded guilty in July and was sentenced to three years in prison, but he remains in the jail while he awaits a hearing to try to reverse his sentence.

Bramlett, 35, wouldn’t talk about the case, but he spoke about how he has struggled with the wound he suffered 16 years ago, when he was the victim of a carjacking.

“You have to look at your glass as if it’s half full, not half empty,” he said. “I could have died. I am fortunate to still be alive.”

Bramlett lifted his tan jail shirt and showed off the tattoo on his back. It’s a wheelchair.

Steven Bramlett, 34, shows off the wheelchair tattoo on his back in the Cook County Jail. Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times

The green tattoo masks the bullet wound that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

The international “no” sign — a red circle and a backslash — is superimposed over his wheelchair tattoo, symbolizing his efforts to overcome his disability.

When he was interviewed by the Sun-Times, Bramlett was locked up in Division 2 with other disabled inmates.

They live in a spartan cinder-block dormitory with rows of steel beds. Tables and metal stools are bolted into the concrete floor. Some inmates played cards at the tables. Others watched TV.

Even though many of the inmates can’t use their legs, correctional officers in the jail never let down their guard.

They got a reminder why in late July: a vicious beating in which two inmates dismantled their wheelchairs and turned the parts into weapons. One took off the small wheel on the front of his chair. The other removed a handrail. Then, they bludgeoned a third inmate they had argued with, sending him to the hospital with a head injury.

The attackers were gang members, police say. The victim, who walks with crutches, wasn’t in a gang.

When one of the attackers was transferred to another section of the jail, he allegedly boasted to correctional officers that he was a member of the “wheelchair mafia.”


Daniel Moreci, assistant executive director of the jail under Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, said some inmates who use wheelchairs try to “egg the officers on.”

“There is probably no better lawsuit that you can have than that an officer brutalized somebody in a wheelchair,” Moreci said. “The problem ones are real defiant and push it to the extremes to see if they can get a rise out of the staff.”

Guards are on constant lookout for weapons that inmates fashion from wheelchair parts, Moreci said.

He displayed a small steel knife — or shank — that correctional officers recovered in October. Originally, it was a seat-adjustment handle.

While few stabbings happen among these inmates, they sometimes use shanks to intimidate others into depositing money on their commissary accounts or doing other tasks, Moreci said.

The guards’ searches for weapons can be nasty. Many of the inmates use colostomy bags. Sometimes inmates hide weapons in the waste in the bags, so guards regularly scan the bags with handheld metal detectors.

Inmates also hide drugs and other contraband in their wheelchairs.

When they go to court, they sometimes distribute concealed “kites,” or coded letters, to fellow gang members they encounter from other parts of the jail.

A typical kite might contain an order to attack a rival gang member.

Inmates who use wheelchairs aren’t usually targeted for violence, though.

“Inmates have their own code. If you beat up a guy in a wheelchair, you’re not going to get a lot of respect from a lot of these inmates,” Moreci said. “You’re most likely going to find yourself on the receiving end.”

Johnathan Lacy, who was paralyzed when a security guard shot him during a robbery in 2005, said he isn’t afraid of other inmates, including the able-bodied ones.

Lacy, who is just 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, does hundreds of “dips” each night, raising and lowering his body on his wheelchair’s handrails.

He also does hundreds of pushups.

“Whatever I can do to keep my upper body strong, I do,” he said. “Me allowing somebody to take something from me is not going to happen.”

Johnathan Lacy keeps in shape while locked up by doing 100’s of dips and pushups with the support of the bolted down bunk beds. | Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times

Lacy, 29, is charged with possession of a 9mm handgun with a scratched-off serial number.

On a lawyer’s advice, he wouldn’t discuss the case. But police say an informant told them Lacy fired a gun on May 11 in the 3000 block of East 91st. The shooter escaped in a wheelchair, according to the police.

Officers said they stopped Lacy in his wheelchair eight days later and, in his waistband, found a handgun. Bullets in the gun were similar to shell casings police found at the scene of the shooting, authorities said.

They said Lacy told police he was carrying the gun because Latin Kings members had been shooting at him.

Lacy was shot and paralyzed more than nine years ago — on Jan. 10, 2005 — when he tried to rob Highland Community Bank near 105th and Halsted. He was armed with a .32-caliber revolver.

A security guard “came out of nowhere and shot me in the back,” he said in an interview.

The bullet remains lodged in his spine.

Jonathan Lacy | Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times

Lacy spent 16 days in Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, under police guard. He served almost eight years in federal prison for the crime and was released about a year ago.

“I was approximately 28 when I got out,” he said. “The same problems and difficulties are still there. But now it’s 10 times worse for me because I can’t do nothing.

“I was a pretty tough guy, man. Now, it was like, ‘He in a wheelchair now, so I can get away with this’ — the things they wouldn’t have been able to do previously, before I got shot.”

Lacy said the streets are different from when he went to prison.

He returned to a world where gangs are no longer organized like corporations and young punks armed with guns do whatever they want — without answering to a boss.

“I’m on guard,” he said.

One of Lacy’s biggest challenges was learning to use the bathroom normally after he was shot.

“By me being shot in my spinal cord, my body functioning is way different,” he said. “I had to retrain my bowel movement, my bladder. It’s totally different. When I got locked up, I didn’t have no therapy. Everything I went through, I went through by myself, on my own. I hated using catheters. I hated having to put on a diaper.”

As Lacy did, Bramlett has served time in prison in a wheelchair before.

He was shot in 1998.

A carjacker nicknamed “Alpo” stole the Lexus that Bramlett’s father gave him as a high school graduation present. According to Bramlett, the carjacker shot him four times, in his left leg, his left shoulder, his left side and his spine.

Bramlett explained his spinal injury with medical precision: “A bullet lodged in my thoracic region of my spinal cord. T-11 is my injury.”

Bramlett said his heart stopped twice on the way to Cook County Hospital, now Stroger Hospital. When he woke up, he couldn’t move his legs.

He was told Alpo was killed about a year later.

Steven Bramlett, 34 shows his leg braces which help him ambulate short distances while locked up in Division 2 of the Cook County Jail. | Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times

In 1999, Bramlett was locked up for allegedly being an accomplice to a gang-related murder in 1995. At the time, he belonged to the Black P Stones gang.

Bramlett, who taught martial arts and ran track before he was shot, said he kept a positive outlook in prison, making the dean’s list in college courses he took behind bars.

A legal clinic at Northwestern University handled his appeal, and he was freed when his confession in the murder case was tossed out in 2003.

During an interview, Bramlett said he doesn’t want anyone else to go through the struggles he and his fellow inmates have endured as a result of being shot.

“Sometimes I have woken up on the floor. You see those beds over there. They don’t have any handrails,” he said.

“I don’t wish for anybody to be in a wheelchair,” Bramlett said. “A lot of this stuff is done senselessly. A lot of this stuff is done in retaliation . . . Some people act out their own justice. That’s not the way to go, of course. That’s what the legal system is for. But it happens.”

Another inmate, Maurice, also decried the violence on the street, although he, too, was involved in the gang life as a young man.

Maurice, who would not discuss his current case and agreed to an interview on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, faces charges for wounding his girlfriend and her friend in a shooting in May 2012. He was in a wheelchair at the time.

Both women were shot in the leg.

Maurice, 43, was paralyzed in 1995 when a police officer shot him while responding to a call of a gang incident in the 2200 block of East 79th. Maurice, who was on parole, admits he was carrying a gun at the time.

Police said he tried to run away and was shot when he started to point his gun at officers. Maurice denies he was getting ready to shoot.

Maurice was paralyzed after being shot by a police officer. | Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times

After the bullet hit him, Maurice said: “It’s like your body goes into like shock. Like an electric shock. . . . Everything below the waist goes numb. Like dead weight. I had a constant pain like pins and needles running through my body. I felt that I was fittin’ to die. I looked up. The police officer was standing in my face. He actually kicked me in the back and told me he wished that I had died.”

Like Bramlett, Maurice said he was shot in the T-11 section of his spine. The .45-caliber bullet is still lodged there.

“I have been shot everywhere in my body back when I was wild. I have been shot nine or 10 times in my life,” he said.

Maurice has a 13-year-old son living in the South Shore neighborhood, where much of Chicago’s gun violence is centered.

He’s worried the neighborhood is even more dangerous than when he grew up. He’s trying to steer his son away from the gang life that put him in a wheelchair.

Maurice currently faces charges for wounding his girlfriend and her friend in a shooting in May 2012. | Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times

He talked about how gang members carried .38-caliber revolvers with five bullets back in the day. Now kids carry “30 poppers,” handguns with 30-round clips.

“A gun that shoots 30 to 50 times, that’s senseless,” Maurice said.

“It’s like the Wild West.”

Lacy turned his thoughts, too, to the outside, to the young men who will soon join him in the wheelchair fraternity.

“I think about the individuals out there today,” Lacy said. “They don’t even pay attention to the guys who are in wheelchairs — until it happens to them and it’s too late.”


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