Crime epidemic creates overcrowding crisis at Cook Co. Jail - FOX 10 News |

Tipping Point: Crime epidemic creates overcrowding crisis at Cook Co. Jail

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

It's called a dormitory, but it's probably unlike any dormitory you've seen before. More than 300 inmates packed into a room that used to be a kitchen. Welcome to Division 2 at the Cook County Jail.

Inmates in Division 2, confront Sheriff Tom Dart with complaints that they're mistreated by guards on the night shift, and that they're always freezing. Then there's the food--too many peanut butter sandwiches.

"Why don't we have, can we have three hot meals instead of one?" one inmate is overheard asking.

The sheriff isn't surprised. He knows that confining 333 inmates with a 160 bunk beds in a single room is no way to run a jail, but he says it's the best he can do with the ever-increasing number of defendants who are unable to bond out as they await their trials.

"Let's use common sense. It's horrifically expensive to house these people, and if we don't have a plan so they don't keep coming back in, that's just plain stupid," Sheriff Tom Dart explains.

On most days, there are just over 10,000 inmates at the jail. That's about 1,200 over its capacity. Inmates facing serious charges are kept in jail cells.

The inmates in Division 2 are charged with lesser crimes, including drug charges, theft, or unlawful possession of a firearm. Many will bond out in less than a month, so there are no programs to develop skills they could use after their release.

"It's terrible, it's terrible," inmate Donnie Johnson says of living in the jail. "Everybody around you is loud. You can't sleep because people wake up at different hours, you got to deal with 300 different attitudes, 300 different odors, 300 different everything. You know, it's just, crazy."

As the sheriff moved among the inmates, some said told him they were doing okay; others complained. The most common complaint? It's too cold.

Dart says conditions are better now than several years ago. The 33,000 meals served every day are healthier, and stabbings are way down. But he's constantly worried about stuffing so many inmates--most of them gang members--into such tight quarters.

"Most everyone in here is affiliated or has been at one time with someone, so that's a mix here that can get very volatile, you can imagine a place like this if it goes up," Dart says.

A former gang member, who's been here for two months awaiting trial on drug charges, agrees that gang affiliations could lead to trouble.

"You got to keep the troublemakers out of here," Harris Billyboy says. "That's the key. Keeping the troublemakers out of here, keeping the guys that try to keep the gang stuff going on, keep them out of here."

The sheriff says the Division 2 dorm is just one of many headaches he's facing at the jail. He's got 2,500 inmates taking psychotropic medications for serious mental health issues, some of the jail's buildings are past their useful life, and he's getting sued, on average, twice a day by unhappy inmates. And no solutions are in sight.

"The taxpayers have paid enough," Dart adds. "And they are rightfully at the point now where its, you guys need to be more creative. And I'm just telling people there's no creativity left, we are using all the available space we can. And there's not just much more to give."

Sometimes, to illustrate just how big the challenge is, Sheriff Dart likes to point out that the population of the Cook County Jail is larger than a lot of the towns in the state of Illinois.

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