Cook County Jail's sordid history

Chicago Tribune reporter

Almost as if it is cursed, Cook County Jail is perennially either grossly overcrowded or unable to hang on to all its prisoners. Crafty ones devise ingenious escapes, others benefit from bureaucratic blunders. Last week, a convicted murderer enjoyed a few days of undeserved freedom thanks to a paperwork screw-up.

A week earlier, the Tribune reported that, with its daily head count frequently topping 10,000, Cook County Jail has become the most populous single-site jail facility in the nation and effectively the largest mental health facility. Still, things have been worse in the fortress-like structure near 26th Street and California Avenue, and its predecessors on the Near North Side. Unlike earlier periods of overcrowding, inmates currently don't have to share bunks, sleeping in shifts.

Baleful conditions at the jail have frequently drawn Uncle Sam's critical eye. In 1988, with a federal judge angered to learn that inmates were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor, jail officials had to release more than 6,000 inmates, many accused of violent crimes. "My job is to keep people in here, not let them out," Deputy Warden Robert Glotz complained to a Trib reporter. "This is not a Holiday Inn. I can't put up a no vacancy sign."

In 1895, a federal inspector came to Chicago for a firsthand look at the jail, where the government then boarded defendants awaiting trial in U.S. courts. Confined four or five to a cell, "Strong men had gone over and returned after a little time pale and trembling from the effect of such confinement in the fetid air," the Tribune reported.

In some seasons, jail officials have literally cracked the whip. In 1922, Capt. Wesley Westbrook, summoned from home to deal with rioting inmates, decided to teach them a lesson about disturbing his evenings. "Westbrook with a crew of husky guards waded into clattering cell rooms and one at a time administered a ragged, stinging, old fashioned whipping to every prisoner guilty of participating in the uproar," the Tribune reported.

At other times, officials have been more accommodating — for a price. In 1950, the Cook County state's attorney ordered a grand jury investigation of reports that prisoners could "get anything from steak to a lady friend by paying a few dollars to the right person." For that price, inmates could specify how they liked their meat cooked, the Tribune noted. "In tier G-4," an investigator said, "this money was placed on the dumbwaiter and sent down to the kitchen with an order for 'one steak, rare,' or whatever. The steak came back."

A quarter-century later, jail officials told the Tribune they were looking into "reports that guards on the tier for mentally handicapped inmates forced prisoners to fight each other, with the winner receiving cookies or other treats from the jail commissary."

Even as those allegedly sadistic guards were being investigated, the County Jail was making headlines for its extraordinary number of escapees. By late July 1975, 32 prisoners had escaped that year. By May of the following year, 39 had managed to sneak out. On one day alone, a Tribune headline reported, "17 inmates flee from County jail," prompting questions about what role guards might have played. According to Sheriff Richard Elrod, a guard in a watchtower recalled seeing something suspicious at the time of one escape and phoned the jail office. But the line was busy, so the guard "just let it go," Elrod said.

Still, the most audacious escape from Cook County Jail wasn't pulled off by stealth but in open court. In 1894, George McDonald, the convicted president of a bogus investment company, was ordered to serve his 11-month sentence.

"On being shown his cell, McDonald entered strenuous objections to being kept in such a place for nearly a year," the Tribune reported.

And no wonder — prisoners were sleeping three in a bed. So the judge was asked to vacate his sentence. Denying that request, His Honor nonetheless said: "I consulted with a gentleman farmer familiar with the various jails and selected that at Geneva, Kane County."

There the Tribune found McDonald comfortably ensconced, living less like a prisoner than a lord of the manor: "All the luxuries of a modern age are at the disposal of this modern criminal, and if he has any sorrows to afflict his afflicted soul they are that his sentence is not a longer one."

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