State and federal grand juries in Illinois are investigating alleged abuse of prisoners in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, which is filled with more than 11,000 inmates–800 over capacity. The Associated Press notes that four years ago, more than two dozen guards with batons and dogs burst into the jail’s maximum security unit. Prisoners were allegedly stripped, beaten, and stomped. Several inmates needed doctors afterward and one was rushed to a hospital with seizures. Pointing to a similar episode in July 2000, critics say an investigation is overdue. “The jail is a place with very serious problems right now and the problem is extreme misconduct by guards,” said attorney Jean Maclean Snyder of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich had picked former jail Superintendent Ernesto Velasco to head the state Department of Corrections, but Velasco asked to have his name withdrawn. Sheriff Michael F. Sheahan, whose staff runs the jail, won’t talk about details of the allegations. “There are incidents that happen, I’m not denying that,” he said. But he said guards have the right to use force when the need arises. Sheahan promises to videotape weapons searches and submit prisoner complaints to a panel of outside attorneys. The allegations follow a series of black eyes for the sheriff’s office, including conviction of a deputy of obstruction of justice and official misconduct in connection with a homicide investigation, and $1.5 million paid by the county since 1998 to settle excessive force lawsuits against sheriff’s police.