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Abuse of Ill. Jail Prisoners Under Probe

April 21, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) _ Four years ago, more than two dozen guards with batons and dogs burst into the Cook County 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, according to an internal affairs report by the sheriff’s office.

The incident was barely noticed until it surfaced in news reports four weeks ago. But now state and federal grand juries have begun investigations.

Pointing to evidence that a similar episode occurred in July 2000, critics of the jail say a thorough investigation is long 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.

The center represents six prisoners involved in the incidents. If they win in court or their lawsuits are settled, taxpayers would cover the cost.

The fallout has embarrassed Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who had picked former jail Superintendent Ernesto Velasco to head the state Department of Corrections. Velasco asked to have his name withdrawn.

The jail is a sprawling complex circled by gray stone walls, steel fences and rolls of barbed wire next door to the bleak old Cook County Criminal Courts Building two miles southwest of downtown.

The jail is bulging with 11,000 prisoners, 800 over maximum capacity.

Sheriff Michael F. Sheahan, whose staff runs the jail, won’t talk about details of the 1999 incident or one in July 2000 when two former guards say five prisoners were shackled and severely beaten. So far, no charges have been filed in the 2000 case, but the investigation remains open.

Sheahan said his guards do a good job on the whole. ``There are incidents that happen, I’m not denying that,″ said Sheahan. But he said guards have the right to use force when the need arises.

``Officers are placed nose-to-nose with the most violent inmates,″ he said when the Cook County Board called him in recently for an explanation.

Sheahan is promising to videotape weapons searches and submit prisoner complaints to a panel of outside attorneys.

Sheriff’s investigator Charles Holman, who prepared a 50-page internal affairs report on the 1999 incident, said seven paramedics denied treatment to prisoners and refused to cooperate with the internal affairs investigation. He also said some guards turned in bogus reports _ one reason it took him three years to complete his investigation.

Cook County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado criticized the amount of time it took to conduct the investigation, saying ``even by Sheriff Sheahan’s account that was too long.″

``Something happened that dragged that investigation on for three years,″ Maldonado said. ``That’s just too long. That cannot be condoned.″

Richard Remus, commander of the guards involved in the jail incident, entered the unit ``with the intention of administering corporal punishment to gang detainees, three days after a gang fight,″ Holman’s report said.

It said Remus ``directed his subordinates to administer corporal punishment to detainees, knowing that corporal punishment is prohibited.″

Remus personally struck two prisoners, it said. One of them, Cello Pettiford, was taken to the Cook County Hospital suffering from seizures.

Remus resigned after the report surfaced.

Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Paul W. Groah, who represents Remus in the inmate lawsuits, referred all questions to the state’s attorney’s office. Spokesman Jerry Lawrence said there would be no comment on pending litigation.

Bypassing the state’s attorney’s office, Chief Criminal Court Judge Paul P. Biebel Jr. has ordered a county grand jury to start investigating the jail.

Prompted by demands for an investigation from civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and others, federal officials have begun their own probe.

The idea is to determine whether anyone’s civil rights were violated, said Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. attorney.

The allegations follow a series of black eyes for the sheriff’s office:

_ A deputy was convicted of obstruction of justice and official misconduct in connection with a homicide investigation.

_ In 2002 a judge acquitted five sheriff’s officers of chasing and shooting at a couple after a traffic altercation following a fund-raiser at which the officers had been drinking. But the judge chastised the officers, who were off-duty during the incident, calling them ``bozos.″

_ The county has paid $1.5 million since 1998 to settle excessive force lawsuits against sheriff’s police.

``It’s not just the jail, it’s the culture that has grown up around the sheriff’s office in general,″ said County Commissioner Michael Quigley.

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