Three-part Discovery Channel Series on the Cook County Jail Begins Tonight | Bleader

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Three-part Discovery Channel Series on the Cook County Jail Begins Tonight

Posted By on 11.19.09 at 01:40 PM

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Earlier this week Cook County sheriff Tom Dart and several of the top corrections officials at the Cook County Jail were sued in federal court by an inmate named Kenneth Simmons Mays. In a handwritten complaint he filed on his own, Mays alleges that on October 28 he was stabbed in the mouth by another inmate wielding a homemade shank, left by guards to fend for himself, provided inadequate medical care, and then placed back in the same maximum-security tier where he was attacked.

"I'm fearful of my life," Mays writes. "I'm stress and depress."

He's seeking $2.6 million in damages.

I have no idea if the suit has any merit, but it's definitely part of a pattern. So far this year 270 lawsuits have been filed against the sheriff; last year Dart was sued 250 times.

Why? In simplest terms, the jail is a messy, volatile place—a facility built for 4,000 inmates that instead holds 10,000, ranging from drunk drivers to pathological murderers of every gang association in the region. And thousands of them are mentally ill.

Dart knows there are serious problems at the jail, but he's a skillful enough politician to realize that things will only improve—and his stock will continue to rise—if he's open about them. So earlier this year he decided to let camera crews in to film what they wish. The result is Cook County Jail, a three-part documentary debuting on the Discovery Channel tonight that offers a fascinating and sobering glimpse at what goes on inside the facility.

Despite some needlessly dramatic narration and action-movie flash, the doc tells the compelling stories of violent offenders who secretly feel vulnerable and jail guards who combine tough-guy cop-think with deep compassion. It shows how inmates can fashion a knife out of a shaving razor and a toothbrush (they use light bulbs to melt the toothbrush so they can affix the blade to it), why it's dangerous for loose toothpaste caps to be floating around (they're used to cover up parts of the cell-door lock system so inmates can sneak out), and why inmate jumpsuits come in several different colors (they represent what level of threat the inmates present, with red the highest).

Most striking, though, is the program's emphasis on the fragile mental health of many of the inmates. It notes that gang leaders manipulate mentally ill underlings to get them to carry out their most violent actions, and that some people who used to receive treatment at city mental health clinics have ended up in jail since services were cut due to budget problems. In fact, most inmates wrestle with stress, depression, anger, or other serious problems. As one inmate explains: "I've been seeing ghosts and demons for awhile now."

The first episode of the series, "Brains and Brawn," airs tonight at 8 PM.

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