a brief history of class action lawsuits at cook county jail.

Big news lately- the Uptown People’s Law Center and MacArthur Justice Center are bringing suit in federal court with allegations of brutality in Cook County Jail. Brutality is an understatement- you can read the complaint, Hudson v. Preckwinckle, here. (here is a link to the Chicago Tribune‘s coverage)

A sampling of the complaint:

“A culture of brutality and lawlessness infects the jail and forces these men, all of whom are awaiting trial, to live under a constant risk of life threatening violence.

Officers slam people to the floor, stomp, kick and punch them—often while the individuals are handcuffed and shackled. After beating shackled men until they lose consciousness, officers will drag them by their chains, banging their heads on steel doors or allowing their heads to slam into the concrete floor. Officers often violently attack people living with mental illness—generally for behaviors that are manifestations of mental illness or in response to an individual’s request for a mental health evaluation. People who appear to be in active psychosis are frequently brutalized by mobs of officers for alleged “non-compliance.”
Officers also order the men to attack, beat and stomp each other—instigating violence between the very individuals that they are supposed to protect.”

Cook County Jail is certainly not the only American jail in crisis- I have previously noted that county governments, sheriffs, and jail administrators across the United States are playing the blame game when it comes to abhorrent conditions and overcrowding. Just this week, the mismanagement of LA County Jails has been contextualized in an important piece of reporting by Los Angeles magazine. The allegations at Cook County Jail are by no means unique in our moment of national jail crisis. But it’s important to remember that this particular institution has a especially complicated and long-lasting relationship with the federal courts system. My forthcoming dissertation deals with these suits in greater detail, but I thought it would be useful to briefly highlight two previous federal court cases at the jail. If you have questions or would like to know more about my research, please contact me at melanie [dot] newport [at] temple [dot] edu.

The first class action suit brought over conditions* at Cook County Jail came in 1968 as the case Inmates v. Tierney. Originally brought as a class action suit by a group of federal prisoners being detained at the jail, the group of inmates was expanded to include local inmates who shared an interest in improving the jail’s conditions. This suit was largely driven by eight deaths at the jail in 1967, which culminated in a series of damning reports by the John Howard Association and a Cook County Grand Jury that alleged racial segregation, violence, negligent and non-existent medical care. This was one of the first inmate class action suits brought on behalf of jail inmates, whose interests had previously been ignored because of the brief nature of most jail incarcerations and a wanting judicial interest in jail conditions that lagged behind behind prisons. Interestingly, this case was dropped because the jail claimed to have implemented so many of the grand jury’s suggested reforms- not least of all, firing the warden- that the Inmates lost a lot of ground in the case. Dropping the case meant that there was no enforcement mechanism for further reforms. During the 1970s, state inspections of the jail became more common, as did class action suits. Inmates v. Tierney, along with the scandals that drove the case, manifested a public expectation of outside oversight over jail conditions.

Another major case was Duran v. Elrod, resolved as Duran v. Sheehan in 1982. Interestingly, after adding 1,000 beds during the 1970s, the Sheriff had proclaimed “mission accomplished” at the jail. The early 80s brought a guard strike and a suit over continued overcrowding at the jail as it tried to keep pace with the rapid expansion of policing under the War on Drugs and punitive changes to sentences and bail. The outcome of Duran v. Sheehan was a consent decree that provided oversight over the jail’s population by the John Howard Association. To meet the demands of the decree, the county experimented with ROR bonds, which allowed individuals to be released while awaiting trial without bail. When the public rejected this solution because of a “tough on crime” mentality, the county expanded on a mind-blowing construction project that added 7,000 beds to the jail during the 1980s and early 1990s. Duran v. Sheehan encouraged a culture of accountability at the jail, although with a limited focus on population.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the utility of class action suits. As the usprisonculture blog noted recently,

the prison IS violence. Until, we are honest about this fact, nothing can end the routine violation of the humanity and dignity of prisoners. We cannot “reform” prison brutality because once again the prison IS violence in and of itself. We must end prisons to end the violence. It’s the only way.

There are so many ways that class action suits fall short- Inmates v. Tierney was dropped and no one was held accountable; Duran v. Sheehan helped to make the jail as one of the largest correctional institutions in the world. Reform is a limited paradigm. A letter I found in my research further emphasizes this point, and even anticipated the outcome of Duran. In 1974, Alvin Bronstein, director of the ACLU’s Prisons and Jails project wrote,

“I am not very hot for cases that aim to imrpove conditions for pre-trial detainees. They do not address the issue of why pre-trial detainees are in jail in the first place, and too often the result is the building of a bigger and better jail. Nothing changes.”**

I relate to this sense of hopelessness. Change at the jail is slow, and many of the outcomes the inmate class sought to see remedied in 1968 remain to be seen. And yet, criminal suits and FBI investigations at jails are rare. Cook County politicians engaged in the blame game are dallying in shifting the onus for reform from the sheriff to the County Board President in unprecedented ways. After 45 years, class action suits remain the most promising mechanism incarcerated people can use to press reform. We need the federal courts because Cook County has continuously failed to show up for its citizens.

*as far as I’m aware at this stage in my research.

**Alvin J. Bronstein, “Letter to William J. McNally,” June 18, 1974, ACLU Illinois Division Papers, Box 648, Folder 2, University of Chicago Special Collections,  Chicago, IL.