Tom Dart: Live at the Cook County Jail

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Sheriff Tom Dart confirmed last week that he’s declining overtures from top Washington Democrats to run for the U.S. Senate and will instead seek re-election to his current post. He says has both personal and professional reasons. For starters, he’s got five young kids. Plus, he maintains that there’s a lot more he wants to do as sheriff, such as reducing jail overcrowding and developing programs to try to limit repeat offenders.

There’s certainly plenty to work on.

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Since being handpicked for the job by his predecessor, Michael Sheahan, Dart has implemented a number of reforms at the jail, such as replacing controversial—and arguably illegal—strip-searching policies with new body scan equipment that’s far less intrusive. But that hasn’t stopped the legal problems. Just last month a federal jury ruled that the rights of hundreds of thousands of inmates were violated during searches at the jail between 2007 and 2009.

The sheriff’s office is appealing the decision, but even if it wins this case the next problem is sure to be around the corner. Last summer a federal report identified a litany of problems, from inmate abuse to unsanitary conditions. Though Dart said it was inaccurate and misleading, he's the first to admit that systemic issues remain. Every week about 30 fights break out across the jail, and currently 10,000 inmates are held in the facilities though they were designed for 4,000. As one Dart employee recently put it to me: “Around here it’s not if something happens—it’s when.”

Nevertheless, when I stopped by the jail on Friday to make the rounds with Dart, he was acting like he has the job he really wants. Now, it’s possible he’s at least part bullshit artist, and he's certainly media friendly—a crew from the Discovery Channel there, too, finishing a documentary on life in the jail that will air later this fall. It's also possible those things are true and he likes being sheriff.

One of the places Dart was eager to show me was Division 10, where he and his staff recently consolidated some of the jail’s medical and psychological services. (The jail’s hospital, Cermak Health Facilities, serves patients with the most serious needs, but Dart is quick to point out that he doesn’t manage it—it falls under the authority of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System.)

As we passed a holding cell full of men in tan jumpers who’d just received medical treatment of one sort or another, Dart called hey and asked how everybody was doing. Some stared back angrily, others blankly, and some shouted out hello. One asked if he could have a word. Dart leaned close to the steel-grated door and listened for several minutes as the man explained that he could be released and placed on electronic monitoring except that his girlfriend wouldn’t let him back into the house. He really needed to reach his parents so he could get out of here—could the sheriff help?

Dart said he’d see what they could do, and asked an aide to keep trying to get the parents on the phone. He shook his head as we moved down the hallway. “We have too many people here, and that’s one we don’t need, if we can get him on EM,” he said. “He’s really a nice guy—I mean, except for the armed robbery.”

We stepped into a large common room full of guys sitting on benches watching a TV mounted high on the wall. They were all psych patients, explained Elli Petacque Montgomery, the sheriff's medical advocate, who monitors many of the jail’s medical services outside of Cermak. Some of the inmates were huddled under blankets. Many were obviously heavily medicated and gazed around with distant looks. Several young men stood to the side with mocking looks, laughing among themselves.

Montgomery asked how things were going.

“It sucks,” said one of the few white inmates I saw that day. “We’re in jail.”

Montgomery checked to see if they’d all gotten their meds.

“We got our meds, but our meds aren’t the issue,” said a man who looked like a gaunt Muhammad Ali. “The issue is incarceration. You know, there are a lot of innocent people in here.”

Dart had already wandered to the back of the room. He sat next to an inmate, talked a little, and then returned to the group. “He’s depressed,” he said to Montgomery. “I think we need to keep an eye on him.”

In the hallway we passed a group of men lined up and waiting to be escorted to an AA meeting. They hollered out greetings to Dart and offered handshakes; he worked the line as if he were at a big-money fundraiser. “Good luck with your re-election!” said a smiling guy with hair hanging to the middle of his back.

“Thanks!” Dart said. “And good luck to you too!” He turned to me and his aides. “Let’s hope we can get him out of here in time to vote.”

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