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Mom of child seen being locked up by Cook County judge: ‘It was all my idea’

A Cook County judge has been placed on “administrative duty” after video surfaced of her putting a child in a courtroom lock-up reserved for adults.

Cook County Judge Jackie Portman-Brown is seen locking up a child in surveillance video.
Provided/Cook County Sheriff’s Office

A self-proclaimed “lock-’em-up” Cook County judge has been placed on “administrative duty” after surveillance video surfaced of her putting a child in a courtroom lock-up reserved for adults.

Cook County Judge Jackie Portman-Brown has been the subject of often fierce criticism online since the video first was published Wednesday, but the mother of the 6-year-old at the heart of the controversy said the child was unharmed and even doing better in school since the trip to “Aunt Jackie’s” courtroom — and the adjacent holding cell — on Feb. 19.

Portman-Brown was assigned to administrative duties Wednesday after surveillance video showing the girl being taken and placed in a holding cell was released, a spokesman for Chief Judge Timothy Evans said.

The first-grader had been suspended from her Catholic school for misbehavior for the second time in as many weeks, said the girl’s mother, who asked not to be named. So she reached out to Portman-Brown, who is a grandmotherly figure in the girl’s life.

“It was all my idea,” she said. “It was supposed to be a life lesson — ‘this is where criminals are, or can come to’ — just to convince her to do better in school. I’m just amazed that this all got so much attention.”

The girl collapsed in tears in the well of the courtroom, her mother said, because she was mortified because “Aunt Jackie” was told that she had been suspended from her first-grade class. The judge and the girl’s mother carried the girl to an ante room where the holding cell is located, but the girl got to her feet and walked back “after just a few steps.”

The child, whose face is obscured in surveillance camera video made public by the Sheriff’s Office, spent about 10 minutes locked up behind a wire-mesh door in a cell that appears to be otherwise empty. Her mother said that she is standing just out of the camera frame for the few moments that the girl was in the cell with no one supervising her.

Evans’ spokesman, Pat Milhizer, did not respond to questions about the reason for Portman-Brown’s reassignment. A meeting of the Executive Committee of the Circuit Court of Cook County is set for Wednesday.

The video shows Portman-Brown escorting the child into the lock-up while a male Cook County sheriff’s deputy briefly looks on. The judge then leaves. A female sheriff’s deputy is seen locking the wire-mesh door to the cell and then standing in front of the door, apparently talking to the child for much of her 10-minute stay.

There is no audio with the video. At some point, another woman arrives, dressed in civilian clothing, and then leaves. The female deputy then unlocks the door and escorts the child out of the cell.

“She was never out of my sight the whole time. I could see her and she could see me,” her mother said, adding that the girl was most concerned that defendants have to use a toilet in front of other people.

The girl was “skipping and waving to everyone” as she left the courthouse, pleased to hear that Aunt Jackie promised to take her somewhere “very special” if she behaves at school for the next 30 days.

A bystander who was in and out of Portman-Brown’s courtroom after the child came in said they saw the girl “kicking and crying” on the floor at one point, and Portman-Brown allegedly picking the child up by the leg.

Both deputies have been “de-deputized” and assigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of the investigation, the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Portman-Brown has earned a reputation as a highly unconventional judge. The items on her bench have included a cowbell, which she rattles when a defendant is finishing paying restitution, according to a 2016 profile in the Chicago Reader.

At one point in the profile, Portman-Brown is quoted as saying from the bench: “When you mess up, I’m like the Incredible Hulk: You do not wanna see me angry. When I get angry, I lock people up. I’m known as the lock-’em-up judge.”

But the girl’s mother said there was no anger, yelling or threats during her daughter’s visit to the courtroom or brief stay in lockup from the judge or deputies. The girl spoke to the judge recently and bragged to her about how well she is doing in school. There have been no bad dreams and little talk of the visit to the courtroom until the video aired on the news Wednesday night.

The mother acknowledged that she will likely become the target of scorn for taking a first-grader to a jail cell but said that she already has put the girl through more conventional child-rearing practices such as individual counseling at her school, and plans to start family counseling as well.

“I feel Jackie was not harsh at all,” she said. “It was just supposed to be a relative giving her a little pep talk and encouraging her to do better.”