By far, the most popular article we’ve presented here on our website has been “What It’s Like to Be Incarcerated in Cook County Jail”, which we published in 2012. That article has been read by people all over the world; most likely they were friends and family of people thrown into Cook County Jail for some reason, seeking information on conditions in this notoriously overcrowded and violent prison.
We’d like to try to answer what are probably some of the most pressing questions family and friends of prisoners might have about Cook County Jail. We welcome questions from our readers about this subject and will try to obtain answers to any questions you have. All questions will go through a moderation process; if you’d like your question to be kept confidential, just ask and we’ll make sure that your name will be removed from your post before it is published. – IWPCHI
Q: My friend/family member has just been arrested and is now in Cook County Jail. Will he/she be in danger of being raped or attacked by the prisoners or guards?
We have correspondents who have been incarcerated in Cook County Jail several times over the past decade – some for several months at a time – and we can reassure you that the dangers to minimum-security prisoners from the other inmates at Cook County Jail seem to us to be vastly exaggerated. In all the time our correspondents were in the jail, no one was observed being sexually assaulted, although there were some minor fights between individuals, some of which resulted in minor injuries. Our reports indicate that, if your friend or family member was jailed for a relatively minor crime – drug possession, parole violation, failure to pay child support, DUI, or some other minor crime – then it is likely that they will be in jail with other relatively law-abiding people accused of similar minor crimes, and they’ll be fine, so long as they aren’t openly racist scum or feel threatened by being forced to live in close quarters with a lot of strangers. The vast majority of reports we’ve received from Cook County Jails – and Will and Kane County as well – is that it is most remarkable how well everyone manages to get along under the rotten conditions they’re forced to endure in the jail. The prisoners in the more minimum-security sections of the jail seem to have an attitude of patient endurance of their plight and will go out of their way to help new prisoners adjust to things. People regularly share food, books, paper and pens for writing letters and will even help your incarcerated friend/family member make phone calls to you. “Some of the most decent people I’ve ever met in 20 years in Chicago I met in Cook County Jail” wrote one of our correspondents. But you have to be careful, because everyone is under a tremendous amount of pressure, and events like a reversal of fortune in someone’s case could cause them to be very edgy, as can be expected. But for the most part, the prisoners at the county jails are pretty good to each other.
The guards are another matter. Many of the guards are pretty laid-back (probably because they are vastly outnumbered by the prisoners); but there are some who obviously enjoy having daily opportunities for kicking the shit out of a defenseless prisoner. People who are mentally ill, or who don’t quite understand that they are in jail and not at a weird version of summer camp can get the shit kicked out of them by the guards for just wandering past the perimeter of the dorm where they are being held.
Q: My friend/family member who is in the jail needs medicine/has a medical condition that needs constant attention. Will the prison officials respect his/her medical needs?
A: This is a bit of a crapshoot. As you can imagine, the US capitalist class and their politicians, who have been getting elected and re-elected by bragging about how they are “tough on crime” have not exactly been making sure that life in America’s jails and prisons is a model of civilized treatment of prisoners. At Cook County, when you first get processed into the jail, you are taken through a medical screening process where actual nurses and maybe even a doctor or two will ask you if you have any medical conditions and if you require any medications – and then they actually do make a serious attempt to provide these medications immediately to the prisoners, or within a couple of days after you’ve been processed in. We’ve heard reports of prisoners being denied medication for days, but most people do seem to get their meds relatively quickly.
Eyeglasses and contact lenses are another matter; the jail does not seem to pay much attention to these issues. People have reported that they have been denied eyeglasses for days and even weeks; and contact lens fluid and lens containers seem to have been “overlooked” by the medical staff on many occasions.
Medical treatment in the jail is very substandard. We have a report of an eyewitness who saw a man have a seizure – his fellow prisoners immediately protected him from injury and notified the guards – who had no idea what to do. They had no clue how to perform first aid for someone having a seizure, and it took a half an hour for a medical team to get to the inmate.
We’ve also had reports of the medical staff taunting people who were attacked and injured by guards. One report stated that a woman who gave a guard the finger by sticking her hand through the food tray slot in her jail cell door had her arm broken by a female guard, who snapped her forearm by grabbing her wrist and shoving it down against the slot until it broke. Taken to the prison hospital, the “doctors” there let her sit untreated and in tremendous pain for an hour with her arm broken at an angle. The guards and the doctors laughed as the female guard who broke the prisoner’s arm told the story of what happened. The prisoner had to beg the doctors to treat her.
Basically, medical treatment is better than it once was, but it is still too often given at the whim of the guards and the staff, who, if they don’t like you or believe you are really sick, will refuse to give treatment.
Q: What is the quality of the food like?
A: “Quality” is not the word to use here. Food at the Cook County Jail is pure garbage. Lots of undercooked potatoes, undercooked bread (especially bagels) and not enough vegetables or fruit results in most prisoners developing serious constipation within a couple of days of being jailed. And we mean SERIOUS constipation, to the point where you go for days or even a week without being able to take a dump. This is a human rights violation of the first order, no question about it. The food is simply not nutritious or even edible. The only exception to this rule is that if a prisoner requests a special diet for medical reasons, in which case they will get actual pieces of fruit and actual chicken and vegetables to eat. Most people are forced to eat the garbage served by the prison kitchens.
Q: I heard that the prisoners can order food from the commissary that is much better than the food served up from the kitchen. What’s the deal with that?
A: The deal with that is that the criminals who run the Cook County Jail are making a shitload of money off the prisoners by feeding them food so lousy that everyone spends as much as they possibly can for commissary items – overpriced cookies and candy and other junk foods – as well as some halfway decent stuff like foil packages of salmon and tuna. The privatized commissary makes millions of dollars every year through this scam, much of the money which undoubtedly finds its way, as if by magic, into the pockets of the Sheriffs Department officials and the corrupt Democratic Party politicians who run Chicago like it was their own private piggy bank. If you can afford to do it, you can send money to the prisoners so they can buy some edible food from the commissary to keep them from getting sick from eating the prison food. But what’s really necessary is for the working class of Chicago to DEMAND that the Cook County Jail authorities start providing quality food to the prisoners. The more money they are forced to spend on decent food and medical care, the more expensive it is for the capitalist class to throw people in jail and the more likely it is that they’ll be forced to reduce the jail population for economic reasons – the only logic the capitalist class understands.
Q: Do the prisoners get any exercise while they are in jail?
A: This may be changing now, since the new prison building does have crappy excercise yards built into it on all floors; but it has long been the practice of Crook County Jail to not allow prisoners ANY exercise of ANY kind for YEARS ON END! This major human rights violation has gone unreported and unaddressed for YEARS at the Cook County Jail. None of our correspondents who were in the minimum security sections of the jail ever were allowed to exercise while they were incarcerated – some of whom went up to 3 YEARS without ever being allowed to do any kind of exercise other than walking around the perimeter of their dorm! This, combined with the rotten food, utterly destroys peoples’ health and results in serious deterioration of their physical conditioning. The gang members at the jail go through all kinds of hassles to obtain odds and ends of various items with which they create weights they can use for weight lifting just so they can stay somewhat in shape. This stuff is, of course, considered to be contraband by the Crook County Jail officials, but is largely allowed by the guards. If it wasn’t for the ingenuity of the prisoners in constructing their own weights, they’d have no real physical exercise at all. We’ll have to wait and see if the new prison’s exercise facilities are going to actually be provided to the prisoners. The old sections had basketball courts and even a huge, well-equipped gym that was never allowed to be used by the prisoners for anything but assembly hall-type events. The bourgeois press knows all about these HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS at Cook County Jail, and says nothing. The “lesser evil” Democratic Party RUNS THIS JAIL SYSTEM. It should be a major scandal.
Q: Can the prisoners get access to daily newspapers and reading material?
A: Our correspondents never saw a copy of any newspaper while they were in Cook County Jail. Magazines and books are sent in by friends and family of the prisoners; the jail authorities pretend that the jail HAS NO LIBRARY, even though the forms which the prisoners use to request visits to the law library specifically lists “LIBRARY” as a place that exists in Cook County Jail. The denial of daily newspapers to the inmates is ANOTHER HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION. The only opportunity for keeping abreast of world events occurs when the prisoners get to watch the crappy local and national TV news programs – which are often cut off by the guards because they are broadcast at the same time that lunch and dinner are served. There should be a concerted effort made by prisoners’ rights advocates to force the jail authorities to allow prisoners to use their commissary money to purchase newspapers, magazines and books. Why don’t the supposedly struggling Tribune and Sun-Times attempt to force the jail to allow them to sell newspapers to these prisoners – most of whom haven’t even been convicted of a crime yet!
[To Be Continued – IWPCHI]