Correcting Corrections: Reform and Recovery in Cook County Jail

 /  Oct. 30, 2016, 10:55 p.m.


On Friday, April 8, the Gate led a group of reporters to the Cook County Department of Corrections, the largest single-site jail in the United States. At Sheriff Tom Dart’s invitation, we met with inmates, guards, and administrators. The visit and weeks of additional research culminate in this article.

The halls leading to Cook County Jail’s processing room, dubbed “Receiving,” are lined with mismatched patches of worn linoleum. A painted yellow line running down the middle of the floor divides the camera-marked path from the entrance to the receiving area. The corridor winds past pink-tiled bathrooms with doorless stalls and austere cells with yellowing cinderblock walls. Most of the people walking these halls are men in beige jumpsuits, and the majority seem to know their way without direction from their guard escorts. In the receiving room, those who were arrested the previous night are screened for mental health problems. The process is fast-paced and systematic; Hanke Gratteau, who serves as the director of the Cook County Sheriff’s Justice Institute, describes the scene as “organized chaos.” Ben Breit, director of communications at the Cook County sheriff's office, likens the operation to “an assembly line.” After the booking process, inmates are taken to a bond hearing where, as Breit puts it, “a judge determines how much money [their] freedom is worth.”

Most of the detainees, however, seem unconcerned with the procedure ahead of them. Many of them laugh and joke with one another, while others sit in silence and one takes a nap. The majority look at ease. “This is their normal,” Breit emphasizes, noting that a large portion of those in the cavernous room are repeat offenders—men who are familiar with the receiving process. Many detainees have been evaluated by Cook County mental health professionals before. However, this mandatory screening process is necessary to ensure that all arrestees are made aware of the resources and treatment available to them at least once during their time in the facility, given that those who can make bail will be released immediately after their bond hearing.

The room buzzes with activity. Some men pace aimlessly in front of a wall lined with barred holding cells; others chat casually near an unlocked cell door. On a nearby bench, fourteen men wait to be screened before meeting their public defenders for the first time. When they hear “next!” the man at the head of the line stands and walks to a counter in the corner of the room, where he is screened by someone from the Sheriff’s Office of Mental Health Policy and Advocacy. Leading the screening efforts is Elli Petacque Montgomery, a slight woman with glasses and a warm smile. She holds a clipboard with the morning’s mental health stats.

The Largest Mental Health Facility in the State

Montgomery stresses that the decrease in funding for mental health programs in Illinois has contributed to Cook County Jail’s growing role as a mental health facility. In a recent interview with the Gate, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart echoed this concern. “[The jail has] become the largest mental institution in the state,” he said. This transition is in many ways due to the closure of six city-run mental health clinics and three state-run facilities, mostly in 2012. These closures have even spurred the sheriff’s choice to reopen a mental health clinic on his own initiative and with his own department’s funds. Dart explained that he recently “worked out an agreement” with the city in order to “reopen one of their clinics . . . [and] operate it.” Breit notes that the jail saw “an immediate spike” in the number of mentally ill people it admitted after many lost the ability to obtain medication from their mental health care providers. In Breit’s view, “The way the government has treated mental illness is disgraceful.”

There has been over $100 million in cuts to mental health services in Illinois since 2009, and Gratteau argues that the jail’s newfound role as mental health-care provider has been “hideously expensive.” Breit agrees, contending that “not only [are cuts] morally wrong, but [they are] fiscally insane.” The jail spends, on average, $143 per healthy inmate per day; for those with mental health problems, the cost is double and sometimes triple due to extra charges for medicine, equipment, and security. For example, one man recently ripped out one of his eyes in an attempt to end his severe hallucinations and required full-time supervision by two officers during the first several weeks of his time at Cook County Jail. His treatment and security measures required excess costs far beyond the average $143 per day.

This inmate’s case and others like it are often used as evidence of the flaws in the nation’s penal system, but Breit emphasizes the limited capacity of Cook County Jail to control the number or health of the inmates who are sent to the jail. The jail must accept every detainee brought in, regardless of the sheriff’s view on their case, including the mentally ill. Caring for these inmates costs more due to their illnesses, and many struggle in the jail environment. Some inmates, for example, become violent due to their poor mental health, but instead of receiving help or treatment, they accrue additional charges, known as “jail cases.” These cases can extend their sentences or lead to further consequences.

Breit laments that “no one cares about” the people coming through Cook County Jail, and says sharply that “it’s easy [for Governor Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel] to cut services to people [they] don’t have to face.” In his words, “The easiest thing to do is to cut mental health services because no one cares about these people.”

But Breit, Gratteau, Montgomery, and the rest of the Cook County Jail staff serve the men and women awaiting bail every day. Each screening lasts around five minutes and covers standard biographical questions—year of birth, charge, medical history, drug and alcohol use. A twenty-one-year-old black male confesses that this is not his first time “in Division Two [a group of dormitories that house minimum and medium security men] with the dumb sick people,” while an older man at the counter next to him states that he has attended anger management classes. Beyond these basic procedural questions, the screening team asks about mental health history, searching for signs of schizophrenia, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder, bereavement, and other mental illnesses. Some questions are targeted to elicit more information about potential symptoms. For example, Montgomery asks people how they sleep and how they feel on the Fourth of July to try to determine whether they may suffer from PTSD. Female arrestees are typically more forthcoming about PTSD, especially if they have been trafficked. Those who have been stabbed, shot, or have witnessed someone’s death are also flagged as at risk for PTSD. During the screening process, Montgomery’s team ranks detainees on a numerical scale from one to six that also takes into account past criminal history and failure to appear in court.

The information gathered in the pre-bond screening is essential. Depending on the outcome of the process, some arrestees may be granted different levels of bail. Others may be sent straight to Cermak Health if, for example, they exhibit intense symptoms of drug withdrawal or are otherwise in need of medical attention. Those who are acutely psychotic will be placed in single cells, and some may be placed on suicide watch. During the screening, the team recommends community mental health resources. Montgomery states that she is particularly concerned about people in young adulthood or their early thirties, common ages for psychotic breaks. However, she underscores that mental illness can affect people “everywhere, anywhere, and at any time.”

About 38 percent of the 8,200 inmates currently housed in the jail are mentally ill, and 30-50 percent self-identify as having mental health concerns on any given day. On April 8, thirty-three out of eighty men and seven out of fifteen women screened by Montgomery and her team were found to have mental health issues—42 percent overall. Gratteau argues that many of the inmates with mental health challenges “shouldn’t be here,” and that the “mentally ill are landing in jail instead of hospitals.”

The Price of Freedom

Except for those accused of high-level offenses like murder, the majority of arrestees who go through the pre-bond mental health screening will be granted bail. However, the set cost of making bail often exceeds what the men and women awaiting trial can afford. The information gathered from the screening is sent directly to bond court in the hope that judges will grant lower bail to those with clear mental illness who are in need of assistance. According to Breit, this policy backfires in some cases when the stigma of mental illness causes certain judges to impose higher bail out of fear that these people would pose a threat to society if not kept in jail. Dart complains that in consequence, and without his knowledge, some “public defenders stopped giving the mental health information to judges" during the already brief twenty to thirty-second hearings.  

To many people, the idea of a jail brings to mind convicted inmates serving their time. However, 95 percent of people in Cook County Jail are simply awaiting trial or conviction. According to Dart, some detainees may wait up to eight or ten years for trial. This prolonged waiting period causes many to lose their jobs and homes or to fall out of contact with their families and children. Five percent of the jail population is serving “county time” of under one year. The average stay for an inmate at Cook County is hard to determine due to the wide variety of cases, which includes people who can immediately pay their bond and those who are quickly released on probation.

However, those in jail for “crimes of survival” like retail theft or criminal trespass stay approximately 90 to 120 days. According to Breit, the bulk of people in Cook County Jail are housed in the facility purely because they “cannot make the bond” that has been set for them. Although bond can be as low as one hundred dollars, that might as well be a fortune for many of the men and women who enter the system. Some may even commit petty crimes in order to be placed in the jail and receive services such as food, shelter, and medicine that they would not otherwise be able to afford. Inmates have been known to loiter at local police stations until they are taken to Cook County Jail, which, according to Breit, provides some of them with “the only treatment they’ve ever had.” Some inmates have cycled through the jail for years, bearing witness to a series of challenges and reforms.

Demographics and the DOJ

In 2007, the year Tom Dart took office, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) flagged Cook County Jail for “life-threatening deficiencies in sanitation and safety measures.” In 2008, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division claimed that the jail had systematically violated the constitutional rights of inmates. Eight years later, in 2016, the Cook County Board agreed to pay over $1.4 million to settle civil rights cases dating back to 2011.

Though jail guards have not been armed with guns for decades, there have still been issues related to violence between inmates and corrections officers in recent years. As part of a push for greater transparency, Dart released footage associated with six cases in which jail officers used excessive force on inmates, which led to the discipline of thirteen officers.  

Before 2013, overcrowding in the facility and a shortage of beds forced some inmates to sleep in shifts or on the floor. Breit said that shortly thereafter the jail staff “sounded the alarm, and judges got the message,” sending detainees home with ankle bracelets to await trial. However, the jail remains the largest single-site jail in the country, and during the summer it routinely reaches maximum capacity at ten thousand inmates. Breit confesses that during his first few months working at the jail he “was blissfully unaware how broken the system was.” Today, he acknowledges the “benign neglect” that still permeates the system.

The population of the jail is disproportionately composed of members of racial minorities and people of low-income backgrounds—those most likely to commit crimes of survival, be arrested, and be unable to make bail. In 2011, 66.9 percent of inmates admitted to the jail were black, 19.6 percent were categorized in the report as “Hispanic or other,” and 13.5 percent were white. A plurality of inmates were between twenty-one and twenty-five years old. Over 50 percent of inmates came from Chicago’s South or West Side. Of the discharges in 2011, 32.5 percent posted bail; the rest either served time in prison, were sentenced to probation, or had their charges dropped. Although there have been fluctuations in these numbers over the years, the population of the jail has historically been black, poor, and from the South and West Sides.

“We Are Still Human Beings”

Inmates in Dorm 2 of Division 2, the men’s minimum security facility, have varying perceptions of Cook County Jail and the greater criminal justice system. Two rows of bunk beds line the men’s deck on the second floor, and inmates line up to use a microwave, play chess, and watch The Price is Right. When Breit, Gratteau, and Sergeant Robert Zaccone enter the deck, the men abandon their activities and gather by the door, eager to share their perspectives on the jail and the system that has failed many of them.

The first inmate to speak immediately points to the Chicago Police Department as the source of unjust incarceration, claiming that “the first problem is police putting narcotics on people.” Another man echoes this accusation, asserting that “the Chicago Police Department should be held accountable for falsifying documents.” One man describes how a $4 theft can put someone in jail for seven months. Others seem angry, arguing that they are forced to advocate for themselves due to ineffective public defenders. Dart notes that when he visits with inmates, they often act as if he is “their lawyer, their public defender” and ask him for help, since they are aware of his work to reform the jail and hope he will fight on their behalf.

Many inmates speak about the psychological and emotional stresses of incarceration, calling their treatment “belittling.” One man bemoans how the system “makes you lose self-confidence,” and a different inmate adds that all they need “is a second chance.” Another argues that “you should do time for one crime and get it over with,” implying that the courts should stop allowing past offenses to influence present sentencing. A fourth man simply states, “We are still human beings.”

Many of the men in this dorm suffer from mental illness or have other health concerns. When Breit asks how many inmates in this deck were affected by the closure of mental health clinics over the past several years, around a third solemnly raise their hands, and one man mentions that Chicago school closures are also to blame. Another is quick to suggest that more rehabilitation facilities should be created throughout the city. Others complain about the food prepared in the jail’s kitchen, the largest in the country. A man notes that they don’t get hot meals, just “bologna every day,” and another jumps in to complain that inmates are fed non-nutritious “cookies and cakes for breakfast.” When a jail administrator makes a quip about the food, one inmate interjects, “Don’t joke about the food. We have to eat that shit.”

Yet despite moments of disconnect between inmates and guards and administrators, the men in this particular dorm do not seem to blame the jail staff specifically for their situation. One inmate points at Zaccone and says, “I don’t fault them because it’s higher than them.” Zaccone seeks to express support for the men. “You’re a man before you’re an inmate,” he tells them. “If you let them make you, you’re not you.” Breit says of such good-hearted gestures that the Cook County Sheriff’s office is simply “doing right by them because it’s the right thing to do,” for although the jail has no discretion in accepting detainees, the staff can at least treat them as well as possible. As Dart told the Gate, “The humanizing part for me is easy, because the underlying criminal event that brought them in is so inconsequential.”

Breit argues that if every man in this building were released, “There would not be a threat to the community.” The men have many plans for their lives following release. When asked what they would do if they could walk out of jail today, all of the inmates who respond mention furthering their education or working. One says he would like to go to college, while another says he wants to enter the Chicago Transit Authority’s Second Chance Program.

In order to achieve their goals and reduce their likelihood of recidivating, a majority of the men in this deck participate in the jail’s Mental Health Transition Center (MHTC) programming, which has garnered national attention for revolutionizing mental health treatment for incarcerated individuals. When the conversation turns to this topic, the tone shifts. One inmate says he is “benefiting a whole lot” from the program, and another reminds his peers that they “shouldn’t be [participating in the program] to better their cases, but to better themselves.” When the majority of the men on deck break out into a rehearsed, perfectly synchronized pledge about mental health and changing their lives, most seem caught up in the spirit of the MHTC, though some snicker and choose not to participate.

In contrast to the men on the deck in Dorm 2, some of the 684 inmates in Dorm 4 share a large 350-bed room, which is separated from the building’s entrance by a row of wired windows and a metal door guarded by an officer. These close quarters can facilitate the spread of illness, and earlier this year, a flu forced the entire dorm to go into quarantine. During times of quarantine, inmates are not allowed visitors or court visits, which potentially extends their time in jail. The inmates crowd to the windows: some gesture at a group of detainees sitting on a nearby bench with their belongings at their feet, a few turn to talk to each other, and others watch silently. Few of the minimum security inmates who live in Dorm 4 take part in the MHTC programs, as many choose to spend their time working for money rather than participating in classes and therapy sessions. To qualify for work, an inmate must typically have bail set at under $200,000, but many complain about the arbitrary nature of this cutoff, since bail can vary widely depending on the day and the judge.

Welcome to Division 4

Unlike the stark simplicity of the men’s facilities, the walls of Division 4the women’s dormare decorated with murals, National Poetry Month posters, Easter signs, and prints proclaiming “God Still Loves Me.” The dorm contains a beauty shop as well as a law library. In one of the hallways, a mural reading “Welcome to Division 4,” with flowers and a dove in flight, has been painted on the cinderblock wall. Typically, women in Cook County Jail are nonviolent offenders: many are victims of trafficking, and a large proportion are arrested for crimes of survival. This division has recently been combined with Division 17 as part of a large-scale jail consolidation project.

The minimum security females housed in Division 17 were merged with those living in Division 3, who were classified at all security levels except super maximum. They were all relocated to the recently renovated Division 4, where the women from Division 17 retained access to vocational, drug rehabilitation, and mental health counseling. These treatment programs, some of which are mandated to women by their judges, are located on the first floor of Division 4. Pregnant women, who receive extra programming and care, are housed on this floor as well.

Pregnant inmates receive parenting lessons and prenatal care, and those who successfully complete the Babies and Mothers Surviving (BAMS) program are allowed contact visits in the building’s playroom after their children are born. Last year, ten babies were born to Cook County Jail inmates. They stayed with their mothers for several days, and were then relocated to live with relatives or as wards of the state.

Although women have their own in-house programming, female inmates do not have access to the MHTC because it is still in a pilot phase for men only. Instead, they are treated using a “gender-specific and trauma-informed treatment plan,” according to Director of Programming Caitlin Williams, who says she is sensitive to the fact that “pathways into the criminal justice system for women look a lot different from those for men.” Recently, an accommodations committee has made efforts to address the special needs of transgender inmates as well. Regardless of gender identity, all inmates in Division 4 have access to the same programming.

Lisa, a former prostitute, spent time as an inmate in Cook County Jail and is now a peer specialist who also runs a Prostitutes Anonymous group. Lisa strives to show how her healthy choices have paid off and to provide an example for current inmates by sharing her story of getting sober and surviving homelessness and sexual abuse. One of the initiatives Lisa works on, the Dream Catchers program, attempts to target at-risk girls, especially those who have been trafficked, and emphasizes healthy choices, self-care, and mentorship. Other services offered to female inmates include counseling meetings, post-treatment planning sessions, meditation exercises, dance therapy classes, and coping skills workshops. While staff members would prefer that every female inmate receive personal counseling, one-on-one therapy is reserved for the most at-risk women due to a lack of resources.

Some women chosen from a long wait list are also able to participate in special programming like book clubs, yoga classes, a sewing program, and GED lessons, but demand outstrips availability. Inmates under twenty-one can go to high school five days a week, but not all choose to participate. In the words of Superintendent Kelly Baker, adding programs can “keep [the female inmates] busy, keep them out of trouble.” Williams recommends a detainment of 120 days for women, because after this time there is a significant drop in “how many come back.” Despite this, current recidivism rates for women and men are roughly equal.

The maximum security inmates housed on the second floor do not have access to many of the division’s special programs. These are the women who used to be housed in Division 3 and who are awaiting trial for more serious crimes or are deemed dangerous to the general inmate population. When a corrections officer passes the deck housing the maximum security women, the inmates flock to the door, knocking on the wire-crossed safety glass window, hoping to speak to someone about their cases.

Because of their different needs and smaller population, the women of Cook County Jail live very different lives than their male counterparts. The staff attempt to guide them through the unique trials of pregnancy, drug addiction, and recovery from sexual abuse, but they still face a host of challenges in their path back to the outside world.

“The Crown Jewel of Cook County’s Restorative Justice”

While the poster-lined halls of Division 4 and the bunk-filled decks of Division 2 may seem indistinguishable from those of any other jail around the United States, the MHTC is entirely unique to Cook County. The program, also known as Division 16, is a standalone compound located a short drive from the main jail complex. Referred to by Breit as “the crown jewel of Cook County’s restorative justice program,” the MHTC is intended to combat recidivism among the mentally ill, a population with especially high rates of re-arrest. Approximately 8 percent of the overall jail population participates, but Dart ultimately aims to make the compound residential and open to all genders and to increase overall involvement. Dart wants to send information regarding the program to every jail in the country so they can learn from Cook County’s efforts. As Breit argues, “If the largest jail in the country can pull it off, anyone can.”

The center serves not only current inmates but also graduates of the program. The MHTC offers alumni sessions each month so those who have been released can speak to current inmates, and also operates a 24/7 hotline in order to help graduates navigate the world outside the jail. Dart lauds these resources, but also notes that it is “frightening that the best way for [those who have been released from jail] to receive further help is by returning” to the facility. One graduate of the program now even works as a Cook County Jail employee. The recidivism rate has “plummeted” for program alumni, although Breit notes that recidivism figures are notoriously imprecise because the concept is difficult to define. However, when it comes to the MHTC, Breit says that only a few of the men who completed the program have returned to Cook County Jail.

MHTC programming includes job and vocational skills, resume help, classes in fields like cooking, and a variety of other options. Guest speakers occasionally come in to talk to inmates. In Breit’s words, “we kind of throw everything at them” to expose inmates to a diverse set of skills. From day one, inmates in the program are guided through the process of creating a discharge plan, since they do not necessarily know when they will get out.

The halls of Division 16 are plastered with handwritten essays on diversity and photos from a small photography program. Some of these photos include headshots of inmates wearing blazers and ties with a professional background—in sharp contrast to their Department of Corrections pants. Others show flowers and plants growing in the yard, while a few exhibit experimentation with light and portraiture. A sign renames the MHTC: Making History Through Cameras.

In a classroom in the MHTC, six men participate in an anger management course, listening to a lesson focused on “Steps for Responding to Anger.” At the instruction of their teacher, inmates roleplay tense situations as they escalate. During key moments in the interaction, they offer suggestions to one another about coping techniques such as deep breathing and counting to ten. Afterwards, the inmates debrief and debate the proper way to respond to a variety of tense scenarios. Many of the men offer suggestions like extending comfort, asking questions, and providing validation as ways to help diffuse a situation. One man describes the anger he sees on his deck: for example, two other inmates recently argued for an hour over whether “there was a McDonald’s at Laramie and Third Avenue,” a dispute he found “stressful.” The men discuss how anger can often mask underlying emotions, such as hurt, humiliation, frustration, fear, and rejection, and conclude that this man can become a conflict mediator on the deck instead of allowing these disputes to bother him.

Down the hall, twenty-two inmates from Dorm 2 of Division 2, two guards, and a teacher—Ms. Sharon—are participating in a book club. Seated in beige plastic chairs arranged in a semi-circle and prepared for group discussion, the inmates hold copies of Do Good After Prison by Michael B. Jackson. This is the second book the group of inmates has read, following Letters to Incarcerated Brothers by Hill Harper. The walls of the room are covered in homemade motivational posters, proclaiming messages like “Speak It Into Existence,” “Don’t Let a Bad Attitude Ruin Your Day,” and “Team Achievers.” At the front of the room, under signs lauding the benefits of keeping a personal journal, Ms. Sharon commands the attention of the inmates, stating that her “job is to ensure that they don’t [come] back.”

Ms. Sharon notes that “the volunteer basis of the program shows that [these inmates] are trying to make change within themselves.” Those attending the program have monthly progress reports sent to their judges, though many initially came simply to avoid the monotony of life on the deck. Ms. Sharon stresses that “recovery doesn’t begin the day you walk out, it begins the day you walk in.” In May, to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, the program hosts a rally and graduation, featuring balloons and a large celebration. Ms. Sharon says that it’s the first time many of the inmates have worn graduation robes.

One inmate who originally came to the program just to leave the deck claims that since then it has “helped me realize that I wasn’t alone as far as mental problems.” A heavily tattooed man agrees with this sentiment, confessing that he thought the program was not for him since he was “only in here for a DUI, just one mistake.” Since starting the program however, he has realized that “everyone has thinking errors, it’s about recognizing them … wrong thinking leads to wrong living.” One inmate describes how before joining the MHTC, he “wouldn’t consider going to a therapist, getting help, or taking meds; instead I’d turn to alcohol or weed.” One man told the class that he previously assumed he would reoffend after release, but that now he “thinks about doing something different, to further [his] education.”

The room erupts into laughter when another detainee explains that the MHTC program convinced him to stop making an illicit ketchup-based liquor, known as “hooch,” on the deck. He had been caught making hooch, and after guards threatened to kick him out of the MHTC, he realized, “I need this program.” “I felt like a bad apple” within the cohort, he says, which led him to give away over forty-eight unopened packets of ketchup to other inmates. Ms. Sharon tells him his story “was powerful,” a guard pats him on the back, and the class claps to celebrate his achievement.

The men in the room seem to agree that the programming will affect the rest of their lives. One man seated next to Ms. Sharon says, “I’ve been coming in and out for twenty-nine, thirty years … This is the first time I’ve experienced rehabilitation … Now I can see my abilities and attributes.” Ms. Sharon explains that this inmate almost quit the program when he was offered a paid work assignment. After speaking with her, however, he decided to stay in the MHTC and is now one of biggest advocates for the program.

“When you guys come in, what do you see?” another inmate asks. The question hangs in the air for several moments, emphasizing the divide between the inmates and the outside world. The detainees seem eager for a response, anxious to learn how society perceives their efforts to reform.

Rocket Docket and Phones in Breit’s Pocket

In addition to the MHTC, the jail has taken other steps to rectify what Gratteau calls “unjust incarceration,” a term she prefers to “mass incarceration,” because “it’s about the people,” not the numbers. According to Gratteau, Dorm 4 of Division 2, the dorm housing hundreds of working inmates, exemplifies the “revolving door” of the jail system, with many detainees coming back after being released. The majority of the men in this dorm are low-level offenders, but their past crimes may influence the bail they are set and their eventual sentences. Gratteau and her team are currently working to help one such man to get his job back. He was found with a joint and two Viagra without a prescription and slapped with a $50,000 bail mainly because, despite having had a clean record for thirteen years, he had a past conviction for armed robbery.

One piece of legislation that aims to reduce unjust incarceration is the Rocket Docket, Illinois Senate Bill 202. The Rocket Docket allows for people with nonviolent records who are convicted of petty retail theft and criminal trespassing—which are considered crimes of survival—to be released within thirty days if their cases have not already concluded. Additionally, their records are expunged after five years. The bill passed in the state legislature with little opposition, and now advocates are working to include people convicted for using expired or revoked driver’s licenses (provided drivers have not been charged with a DUI or were not involved in bodily harm). Dart also hopes to add class four drug possession—the most common charge in bond court—to the convictions the Rocket Docket covers. Reform advocates are also fighting to create fee waivers for those who can’t pay the $120 fee to have their records cleared, a process that Dart describes as “something that will give you no faith in government whatsoever.” Dart hopes to transform expungement into “a more thoughtful, fluid process that a five-year-old could put together.”

The sheriff’s efforts to improve the lives of the inmates of Cook County Jail have come at the cost of a contentious relationship with City Hall and Springfield. Dart asserts that “the Illinois government has always been dysfunctional,” and that as a result of their budget cuts “they’re shutting down these [diversion] services on the street and then we’re getting more people coming to the jail.” However, the sheriff and his team have worked to effect change independently of the city and state government; as Dart says, “we’ve been able to do everything in-house within existing laws,” without relying too much on the discretion of Rauner and Emanuel.

Speaking of his recent efforts to reform eviction policies, Dart said, “I didn’t need to have any legislation to do it; I just needed to care.” Because Dart pays little heed to local or state government intervention, he is able to reform his jail for the better. "When you truly just don’t care [about the government]—and I do not care—it’s the most liberating thing in the world,” he said. “We can advocate for inmates, we can advocate for poor people, we can advocate for people who've been convicted … Who's going to stop us?”

Though it is clear that Cook County Jail has made great strides in recent years, problems still persist. For example, Breit mentions the prevalence of “dead days,” which occur when when someone spends more days in jail awaiting trial than he or she is eventually sentenced to. This problem results from the lack of a case management or triage system, which causes murder cases to be treated with the same urgency as minor theft. When trials for major crimes are given the same priority as minor offenses, detainees may spend more time in jail than needed. Furthermore, an April 2016 decision to ban cellphones from court has already had negative consequences: some people have missed court appearances because they weren’t able to store their phones securely and were unwilling to come without them. Breit has tried to help mitigate this problem by standing outside the courtroom and holding phones for people in his pocket, but his individual effort cannot fix this institutional problem.

While Breit asserts that the jail is “getting better and better” and has “really transformed” since the DOJ’s civil rights investigation in 2008, Cook County Jail still faces a number of challenges. From the inmates to the sheriff, everyone connected to the jail emphasizes the need to correct the definition of corrections—to redefine the country’s penal system. One inmate laments that “somewhere along the line, the idea of correction was lost,” and another agreed that if he could change one thing about the system it would be “the concept of corrections.” Breit concurs, expressing his regret that there are “a lot of people who don’t care.” “So many aspects of this system are designed to make it hard for people without money [and] are designed to be punitive toward poor people,” he says.

Dart agrees. “The way that our criminal justice system operates, whether you are poor, mentally ill, or both, the cards are so stacked against you on so many different levels that you will end up in the criminal justice system frequently, and you will frequently end up in there for indeterminate periods of time that are not based on what your action was that got you there,” he told the Gate. He maintains that the disproportionate impact of the prison system on the poor and mentally ill creates a situation “in which the wrong people are put into criminal justice settings and are stuck there forever.”

This conviction contributes to Dart’s difficulty “making friends in city hall” as he fights against Rauner and Emanuel’s budget cuts to try to keep the poor and mentally ill from returning to the jail. From Breit’s regret that the jail has no discretion in accepting inmates to one detainee’s remark that the dysfunctions in the criminal justice system go higher than the jail administration, many involved parties insist that reform has to extend beyond the sheriff’s office. In short, Dart says, “the system is pretty screwed up.”

The inmates do not appear to fault the sheriff for the hardships they face. "When I physically go [to the decks],” Dart says, “they're really engaged. They think that I care, which I do." Though serious challenges persist at the jail, he is optimistic, expressing his belief that “we’re on the cusp of really good things right now.”

Julian Duggan, Chelsea Fine, Daphne McKee, Danielle Schmidt, Liz Stark, and Tom Wood contributed reporting.

Kaeli Subberwal

Kaeli Subberwal is a fourth-year majoring in political science and minoring in physics. She has spent her summers working in local journalism at the Summit Daily News and national journalism at HuffPost, and doing archival research through the College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In her free time, Kaeli enjoys reading, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and doing crossword puzzles instead of studying.

Dylan Wells

Dylan Wells is a fourth-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at CBS News in the Political Unit. Previously, she interned at ABC News' Washington, DC bureau as a Political Unit Fellow, twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. Last year she served as The Gate's Editor-in-Chief, and before that she served as the Elections Editor. Dylan was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.


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