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Jail report criticizes sheriff
Grand jury says officials may have obstructed probe of inmate beatings

Thursday, September 16, 2004
Special to
by Jeff Coen,Mickey Ciokajlo ,Steve Mills

A special grand jury that examined jail conditions has found that Cook County sheriff's officials failed to thoroughly and quickly investigate a 1999 mass beating of County Jail inmates--actions that may amount to obstruction of justice--according to sources familiar with a draft of the jury's report.

The statute of limitations on criminal activity related to the beating itself is believed to have expired, but that is not thought to be the case on potential charges of obstruction of justice. The grand jury has forwarded findings related to the 1999 beating and the subsequent internal investigation to Cook County prosecutors and federal officials, the sources said.

The panel also concluded that the guards who carried out the beating were inadequately trained and supervised and some of these problems persist, the sources said.

The much-anticipated findings of the grand jury, which is advisory and does not have the power to issue indictments, are expected to be released Thursday.

The grand jury began its work in April 2003 under the direction of Chief Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel Jr. after reports on the beating came to light. Its report will include 20 recommendations for sweeping improvements at the jail.

Among the recommendations to be announced Thursday are calls for independent monitoring of inmate complaints and investigations, improvements in handling those grievances and assurances that candidates for leadership positions at the jail meet recognized minimum levels of qualification and experience, the sources said.

Believing it is possible he could eventually be targeted in a criminal investigation, at least one of the more than 50 witnesses called to appear before the 18-member panel in recent months invoked his right against self-incrimination and refused to testify, that witness has told the Tribune.

In the 1999 beating, some 49 inmates complained that members of the Special Operations Response Team of the sheriff's police systematically beat them after clearing them from cells in a maximum-security division. As many as 40 guards were thought to have been involved, terrorizing inmates with wooden batons and unmuzzled dogs. Some inmates alleged they were denied medical treatment after being punched and stomped.

The sheriff's office drew criticism when the internal investigation that followed lagged over two years and the statute of limitations on possible criminal charges related to the beating expired.

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil-rights probe into the beating, first reported by the Tribune, and a spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney's office has said any information forwarded by the grand jury would be reviewed.

Kevin Lampe, a spokesman for former Judge Thomas Hett, the panel's lead investigator, said material related to the grand jury's work would be discussed Thursday afternoon at a news conference in the Criminal Courts Building.

The release of the findings was for a time in doubt Wednesday as lawyers for Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan asked Biebel to seal the report so the sheriff's office would have time to digest it. A copy of the report subsequently was given to the office late Wednesday, officials said.

The report is expected to be about 150 pages long, and it will include compact discs of data on about 100 exhibits, sources said, including transcripts of witness testimony. Sheahan appeared before the panel over the summer.

Sheriff's officials had no comment on the report late Wednesday.

"Until this thing becomes a public record, I am unable to comment in any way, shape or form," said Sally Daly, Sheahan's spokeswoman.

Sources said the panel found that inadequate training and supervision played a role, and that sheriff's supervisors were quick to accept the statements and reports of subordinates.

In March 2003, the head of the special operations unit who was accused in the beating, Richard Remus, was demoted and suspended without pay. Sheahan's office said it did not believe the incident involved excessive force, but it disciplined a total of seven officers for misconduct.

That misconduct included the filing of false reports, the office said.

The grand jury also examined another alleged beating of inmates in 2000, but found no evidence of criminality, sources said. Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine has decided not to file charges related to that alleged incident.

Among the grand jury's recommendations expected to be announced Thursday is a call for an independent jail monitor, separate from the sheriff's office and free of its influence, to examine such inmate grievances and subsequent investigations of them, sources familiar with the grand jury's report said.

The report also will include a call for Sheahan to implement better appointment practices when naming supervisors to leadership posts inside the jail, the sources said, a facility that routinely houses more than 10,000 inmates. There should be clear job descriptions for those leadership posts, the grand jury will report, and recognized minimal levels of qualifications and experience for candidates.

The panel reviewed inmate grievances related to allegations of excessive force from the last five years, sources close to the probe said.

And while the panel concluded that positive steps have been taken since the 1999 beating, there is still room for improvement in the areas of guard training and supervision and the handling of inmate complaints, sources said.

The panel is expected to call for the hiring of experts to further examine jail issues, including staffing levels and guard training. Sheahan has often complained that the facility is understaffed and recently called for the addition of 200 guards.

For comparative purposes, members of the panel traveled to the jail at Rikers Island in New York. The panel found that the Cook County Jail compares "unfavorably" to the Rikers Island jail, sources said.

At the New York facility, there are more effective ways for inmates to complain about everything from alleged brutality from guards to the food, the grand jury concluded.

The report is to be officially delivered to county officials Thursday. So far, the Cook County Board has approved expenses of more than $290,000 to pay for the grand jury investigation.



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