Jail Bait: Touring the Cook County Courthouse and Jail

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Openhousechicago 2011 paved the way, over the weekend, to peer behind the scenes at more than 100 buildings around town, and get a glimpse at places that aren’t always open to the public. First on my list was the Cook County Jail and Courthouse. I passed the background check and showed up Sunday morning for an hour and a half, never-been-done-before tour.

Only Neil and I showed up (there were a number of other scheduling spots available and a limit of 15 people per tour), so our tour guides actually outnumbered us–we were led around by four others who work for the police department/Sheriff’s office.

They led us through the elegant courthouse, which was built in 1929. It’s a gorgeous building with marble floors, intricate woodworking, granite columns and more. They’ve taken the original elevator doors and embedded them along the walls, making for a an historical decor. We also got to see the jail, which holds 10,000 prisoners. 10,000. That’s the size of a small city. We saw about 20 of them in our tour of, yes, a maximum security area.

The Architecture Foundation’s openhousechicago website describes the building thusly: “A neo-classical design clad in Indiana limestone, the Court House facade is dominated by 8 towering Doric columns topped by carved figures representing Law, Justice, Liberty, Truth, Might, Love, Wisdom & Peace.”

But here is what stuck with me:

– There’s an Art Deco feel to the place. I’ve toured Hoover Dam a number of times, which was built at the same time as a WPA project, and there are a lot of similarities here. There’s something elegant and even poetic about the extreme attention to detail, like the elaborate ceilings, the owls carved into the stair railings and more.

– The guide said that years ago, they’d wanted to implode and replace the jail house. But when they looked into it, they realized it was too well built. It would cost entirely too much to even try and remove it. In the case of a nuclear attach, he said, this building will remain standing.

– The courthouse has owls on the outside of the building, carved in stone, to symbolize wisdom. The jail has lions to symbolize protection.

-We saw an old courtroom that hasn’t been updated (aside from some ADA requirements) since 1929. It was like stepping into the old West–the furniture was all dark wood. The jury seats were comfy and brown leather. The doors were studded with leather and almost looked dungeon-like.

– The tour guides closed us into the holding cell that’s behind the courtroom (they didn’t lock us in), and we stood in the dark, depressing jail where countless criminals and innocent people have, awaiting their fate. It made my palms sweat.

-There are 1.8 miles of tunnels under the jail, which prisoners are led through to their trial. En route, they never see the light of day.

-The judges all have their own secret passageways, but our tour guides didn’t know too much about that. The judges also have their own elevator, which is operated, to this day, by an elevator operator. Our guides said it was some kind of union requirement, but I have to imagine there’s a security element there, too.

– The mail chutes dates back to 1929, too. Mail can go up it, but not down, because something is lodged there, and has been for years (a bologna sandwich? A bloody glove? Truth and justice?). Our guides said that they’ve called the postal service for years, requesting that they come and fix it (it’s a felony for even the police to deal get in the way of postal service territory), to no avail. I love that even the police and Sheriff’s office can’t get what they need out of the U.S. Postal Service.

– One of the top priorities of the cops is to keep the prisoners safe from themselves and others. They told us that shots are often fired into the jail windows, and there have been times they’ve walked into work and found bullets on the ground. If someone should die from an outside gunshot (or any other number of things) while in custody, the county is in big trouble.

– Our tour guide, who spent years working in the mental intake area, said that he’s run into the above problem, and was sued as a result. He said that a guy had been booked and complained that he was hungry. Said he hadn’t eaten in three days. So the cop gave him a sandwich and an orange. He had no idea that this same guy had just swallowed 15 bags of heroin. He said that somehow the juice from the orange reacted with the drugs and stomach acid, the bags leaked and the guy died, right there in front of him. The family sued for wrongful death, seeking $64 million. They lost.

– There’s a guy in jail who returns, by choice every winter. Been that way for seven years. He’s a homeless guy, and apparently jail is a better choice than the freezing Chicago streets. So most recently, he took a brick, threw it through a window and then sat and waited for the cops to come take him away. The court system is so backed up that his case won’t be heard til the spring. Until then, he has a bed and three meals a day. This isn’t uncommon. Our guides said the percentage of the population that’s there “by choice” is in the low double digits.

-Taking a tour of the courthouse and jail may be one of the most bourgeois things I’ve ever done (not that I regret it–it was pretty enlightening). There we are, flanked by four officers, walking through the visiting room where a line of people waited to visit their friends/family. Here we are, following a breakfast of blueberry pancakes and some hoity toity local beer-soaked bacon, learning about the architecture. The people all stared us down, and I don’t blame them.

That was nothing, though, compared to when we went back to the maximum security cell. We walked past the rec room area, where 10 or so men, mostly older, were watching the game and cheering Honestly, we were both expecting some kind of Silence of the Lambs reaction, but it was bright and friendly in there and we had none of that. Regardless, we tried to avoid eye contact. Then we followed our guide further along the passage way that lines the cell and stopped by a  tiny cell with two guys sitting on their cots. One was reading, one was copying Bible verses. Each had a bag of food and other things nearby (the only item I could make out was Raisin Bran). Each kept their eyes on their respective books, ignoring us. The metal toilet sat nearby. I was glad we walked by at a time it wasn’t in use.

It felt like we were two bankers counting our stacks of money while walking through an Occupy Chicago rally. As much as I loved the tour, there were a couple of moments that I kind of hated myself.


4 thoughts on “Jail Bait: Touring the Cook County Courthouse and Jail

  1. I did this tour, too! I actually loved it and after speaking to their community relations contact at the end of the tour, felt much better about cruising a bunch of maximum security dudes’ cells. She said following years of admitted cover-ups, terrible conditions and abuse in this jail, the Cook Co Sheriff’s Dept is offering some transparency. By opening it up to (a limited number of) the public, it’s forces the Dept to strive to maintain humane conditions. The citizens of Cook County have a right to demand that our jails meet certain expectations for its inhabitants, so it kind of is our business to check it out.

    Its an intense tour, and slightly voyeuristic tour at times, but don’t hate on yourself too much! You got to eat pancakes and bacon that morning because you didn’t murder someone. Those guys get no pancakes because they made a different choice.

    PS- Cook County Criminal Court and Jail is back on the list for Open House 2012- October 13 & 14th.

  2. That’s a great point, thanks for sharing! Really looking forward to Open House this year. Such a fantastic opportunity. And here’s to living a murder-free, pancake-and-bacon filled existence!

  3. Great post, Kate! So few people care about the conditions of our overcrowded jails. I’m always struck by the comparative compassion shown to prisoners in old movies. They talk tough, but the prisoners are always treated humanely. The current penal system in the U.S. is more like the Soviet Gulag. Keep up the excellent writing!

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