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Putnam County Sheriff North 4th St. City of Moline Police Department 6th Ave. Rock Island County Sheriff 3rd Ave. The buses, emblazoned with the sheriff's six-point star, arrive on a daily basis and disappear behind the walls. These buses do not have windows, so although Luis has watched many inmates enter the jail, he has never seen an actual human being, except for the drivers, stone-faced, transferring their cargo from the neighborhood into the system.
At times the population has swelled to 10, inmates, landing the jail under federal supervision for overcrowding.
It's young men from Little Village and neighboring areas who are on those buses. Young Mexican immigrants like Luis and his neighbors. The vast majority of the population of Cook County Jail is black or brown. It is not until the inmates gain release—sometimes days, sometimes months after they enter on those buses—that Luis sees their faces. After being released on bond or after serving their sentences, they come to him in need. They are almost always dazed and disoriented. Sometimes he'll call their parents for them. Other times he gives them a few bucks for the C. As Luis and I chatted, we hid under the hatchback of his car as a sudden rainstorm poured down.
Luis studied the front of the jail as if looking for signs of life. When they release these kids, sometimes they don't have anything to get home. They come in with money, but they take it from them and write them a check when they're released. They are disoriented, they even forget how to take the bus to go home.
I see the families when they come out, and they are crying.
For those who were gang members, Popeyes was a neutral zone where rivalries were suspended because everyone could agree on a common enemy—that jail and those correctional officers who released them with no money, no coat and a bus pass that wouldn't get them all the way home. The contrast is jarring. There are currently six Active Detainee Housing divisions. Cook County recorded , crimes in , the most recent year with a complete set of records. There are kiosks in the lobby of the jail. As the rest of the men run past, Darius asks quietly, Where am I? Division X can house maximum-security inmates over four-stories.
I see a lot of emotions. Spend enough time here and you begin to understand that a jail like this in a city like Chicago was never designed to spare those whose only offense is living next door. J ust inside the wall, Florna Zaya's wait is just beginning. Waiting to post bond, waiting to be reunited with her son, waiting. In the waiting room, families squint in confusion at a digital electronic board that tracks departing inmates like trains at an Amtrak station. They look for names, discharge status and the estimated time of release, which is always off by hours.
Waiting can be a weapon. Or at the least, waiting is a way for the state to tell you that your time, and thus your life, is neither yours to control nor worth very much. A century ago, a debtor's prison stood on this site. In the early s, when Chicago's city fathers were looking for a place to punish people, close enough for guards and lawyers to reach but at a proper distance from polite society, 26th and California was thought an ideal spot.
Admonitions from a minority of city leaders worried about making a ghetto of the old Bridewell neighborhood were ignored: the area happened to be located in the county president's ward, and those were the days when politicians saw having the biggest municipal jail in the country in their backyard as something of a plum. And so, on the 30th day of March , a type of punishment then described as "compulsory idleness" commenced here and has not let up since.
This idleness that was imposed on inmates was even then recognized as a killer of the mind and spirit—the sheer torture of inactivity. And it wasn't just the idleness, it was the uncertainty. An inmate's days were filled with waiting—winding down a sentence of indeterminate length, without benefit of knowing when it would end. Uncertainty can be maddening. By 10 a. She found herself pacing the hallways, searching for anyone who might be able to help her, looking for a bathroom with toilet paper.
Her day would take her from the courthouse, to the bond court, back to this room where all there is to do is wait. When the time comes, detainees will be released in groups of twos and fours. The correctional officer at the security desk will yell, "We got people coming out. Four up! Probability being what it is, most of them will turn and silently shuffle back to their seats. The freed detainees will carry their possessions in plastic garbage bags, knotted and sealed. Any money they had when they were arrested will have been converted to a Cook County—issued check that is unusable for the "release and run," as it is known.
Some will have no idea which way to turn as they leave the jail, and no one will know what to do with a check. There is a currency exchange on Kedzie Avenue and 26th, but that is a minute walk, past the desolate zone next to the 26th Street wall of the jail, where it's not unusual to get jumped by gangs. The Popeyes at California Avenue used to be a good place to get your check cashed, and it was such a reliable sanctuary in the neighborhood that the sheriff's department would send the newly released detainees there, making it a regular stop in the out-processing.
For generations, that Popeyes was a nighttime safe house for those released from jail but not yet free from the dangers around it. Late into the night, released detainees could get a cup of coffee, make a phone call or get their money. For those who were gang members, Popeyes was a neutral zone where rivalries were suspended because everyone could agree on a common enemy—that jail and those correctional officers who released them with no money, no coat and a bus pass that wouldn't get them all the way home. But that had changed a few months back when the place was shot up in broad daylight.
Tired of it being a gang target, the manager had grown hostile to detainees. And so now there is nowhere to go. Back in the waiting room, small lockboxes imprison all the visitors' cell phones; phones are prohibited in the waiting room to prevent anyone from taking pictures. And so those waiting are as cut off from the outside world as their incarcerated family members.
And the waiting families are solemn in their compulsory idleness. The correctional officers, on the other hand, joke around and laugh loud and long. The contrast is jarring. Correctional Sgt. Michael J. Mazurek works the desk and describes the process of bonding out of jail and getting home. Even after paying bond, inmates have to be checked for outstanding warrants before they can be released.
Once a person's bond is paid, it can be as "quick as two hours," which he notes is rare. I've seen a person turned back because they had unpaid parking tickets in Milwaukee. If they're cleared, he says, "they get a bus pass and two transfers and a phone call in the bullpen about a half an hour before they walk out.
Mazurek is a voluble man and doesn't get shy around reporters. He talks about the changes in the jail, talks about the declining population of the jail under the "reform" sheriff, Tom Dart , and goes back in time to when he was just getting started—a time when the most violent offenders were housed in Division 1. Division 1 was the oldest part of the jail and had held some of the most notorious mobsters and killers—Al Capone, Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy, to name just a few.
In an old Chicago Tribune article, Lt. Leroy Moore, a top Division 1 corrections officer, described his work: "You ever had a dream where there is a huge ball of fire and you're entering hell? Well, this is it. This is worse than hell. Now that the division is closed, and Mazurek has survived, his eyes get wide as he tells stories. Sometimes, he says, for the safety of everyone involved, the most violent inmates were not allowed to shower.
Instead, they were shackled, stripped naked and washed in their cells. They were chained hand and foot, with chains running between, and the sheriff controlled the inmate with a leash. If there was any sudden movement, the officers gave them the "lawn mower," yanking upward on the leash to make the prisoner fall hard to the concrete floor in submission. Mazurek gets more excited as he talks, swiping his fisted hand upward like he is cranking the chain, like he is right back there for a moment.
As Mazurek reminisces, Florna wears a stricken look on her face. And the room, already quiet, becomes funereal. Does that still go on here? Where's my son? Where is he?! No one tells Florna how this all works; no one tells her that the bond court doesn't even open until 1 p. Perhaps it is a mistake that the police do not tell her the time or exact location where she would be able to find her son; perhaps it is not.
Sometimes the staff are overwhelmed. Sometimes they are genuinely cruel. When I worked as a law clerk in the Cook County prosecutor's office, the deputy sheriff assigned to our courtroom would brag about how she would torment families of defendants. When families called the courtroom and tried to locate their loved ones and their cases, she answered the phone with a jovial, "County morgue. Florna's son is alive.
But she is panicked about what condition he might be in. On those windowless buses, she's heard how men charged with violent offenses posture for power, taunting the weak, creating a terror of being raped that might as well be the assault itself. As Florna wanders the hallway outside an empty bond court, a deputy sheriff takes pity on her. I don't care what the police told you. Your son is going to be here all day.
Within moments, men run, hands in their pockets, onto the cement walkway outside Division 5 of the Cook County Jail. At first they seem to be running from the jail like it's chasing them, but once they are on California Avenue, the race changes, and they now look like they are being hunted by the surrounding area.
Awaiting these men is the brutal Chicago cold, the prospect of being jumped by the Latin gang that owns the area and the likelihood that to get home, you will have to walk 15 miles alone as night comes on. Darius Roberson emerges from this pack of men, dazed and squinting. He is easy to spot because he is standing still. He is a large man, dark skinned and mumbling to himself in frustration.
While the other men run, Darius pauses and looks around as though he is trying to find visual landmarks to tell him where he is. At one point, he even walks back into the jail for help, fighting his way upstream while everyone else who knows better is swimming the other way. I push upstream as well and hear Darius mumble, "There's a total lack of information.
The temperature is below freezing, but the men running from the jail are dressed for a different season, frozen in time, wearing the same clothes they were arrested in during the summer. They wear cotton jackets and sweatshirts; some men wear T-shirts. Aren't they supposed to give you a jacket?
Another man stops. I wasn't going to risk it.
It's hard to say if it's more degrading or inaccurate. Either way, it sounds like a cruel joke—why bother having a box of coats if you can't at least make sure they're not contaminated? Once the man realizes that I can't help him with his case or get him a ride home, he starts running again but yells back at me. They held him back for a little bit because he got nowhere to go. I don't know what's going to happen to him. He lives under a bridge.
They should help him or something! The men run as they give these warnings and tips, leaving me to hustle with them just to hear what they have to say. Darius comes up to me and confesses, "I took one of the bedbug coats. I figured I had no choice. Being released on bond from the Cook County Jail is a sort of "Hunger Games" footrace into a landscape of vacant lots, smokestacks and abandoned buildings. Shoes hang by laces over electrical wires. Gang tags cover concrete walls. Side alleys are festooned with yellow "rat control" signs stapled to wooden poles. Well-worn plastic sheeting hangs on fences to block the imposing view of the Cook County Jail from those living on the other side of the rusted chain-link.
The majority of those incarcerated are young African American or Latino males under the age of 34, from Chicago's South Side and West Side—a perversely convenient arrangement, as the jail is closest to its target population. Darius fits this profile, but it is clear that he does not know the rules of engagement. He doesn't understand that he had better be running, and it is clear that he is unaware of the dangers that face him outside the walls of the jail.
And anyway, he doesn't have that many choices. If you stand in front of the Division 5 exit and face south, factories, smokestacks and sidewalks route you away from civilization and toward absolute darkness. Some men unfamiliar with the area try their luck in that direction. If you look to the left, into the distance on 26th and California, there is the Popeyes, the only sign of life save for Luis's parking lot in the alley right next to it. Once you get to that corner—26th and California—you see the freeway entrance to your right and a long, desolate stretch of dark terrain that traces the walls of the jail.
About three city blocks west on 26th Street is a Walgreens, the first store and sign of civilization.
Please be advised that the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC) Office website jecarisolo.tk Divisional lobby where the inmate is. The Cook County Sheriff offers an online inmate locator service. Click below to go to the Sheriff's website and locate a detainee in Cook County Jail.
The cashier there says that men often arrive at the store with blood on their faces, asking for modest help: a paper towel, a phone to call home, momentary safety. If you're lucky enough to have someone waiting for you, you can go straight out of the jail to California Avenue, where cars idle in a line, waiting for those who have just bonded out. Children play on iPads that shine through the dark windows of worn minivans. Others sleep with their hoods covering their faces.
Exhaust fumes keep the cold air thick. The tired prisoners pile in and exchange quick hugs with their loved ones, and cars pull away and head to I south. Darius doesn't know what waits to the right or the left. No one is waiting for him. As the rest of the men run past, Darius asks quietly, Where am I?
What day is it? Darius was arrested two days ago, but in his disorientation, he thought it was three days. He had just gotten a new roommate, and there was an argument. The argument had escalated and become violent, and Darius had the defensive wounds on his arms to prove it. He had blocked his head and face while the roommate was in a rage. It was clear that Darius needed somebody to know that he was innocent, and showing his wounds was helping him prove his case.
When the police had arrived at Darius's home, he was indignant. He was appalled at being beaten by someone he lived with and furious that the police were at his door. His defensive wounds didn't matter to the cops. His words didn't matter. None of it mattered.
His outrage was enough to get him arrested; his attacker was left to go about his business. Darius's phone was taken at the police station. He spent the days trying in vain to remember even one number from that phone, just one person he could call to post his bond.
Then he wrestled with fear: missing work and failing to call in sick could get him fired. But even if he could call, how could he tell his boss where he was? Shame and desperation are a poisonous mix. You need help to get out of jail, but the shame of being there prevents you from asking for it. The trauma from the beating at the hands of his roommate, the disorientation—first of the lockup, then the windowless bus—and now the constant chaos and the relentless air of violence at the county jail left him with little memory or capacity to think.
To the world, Darius had just vanished.
Inside the wall, days turned into nights with no markers of time. Was it hours passing, or were those days? But Darius had never been in jail before, and he was scared. The more you protest your innocence, the more the officers hassle you; the more questions you ask about when you get to leave, the longer you are going to be there. Darius got lucky, though, managing to align himself with a kindly inmate who taught him the rules of engagement—the threats from the gangs, who the power brokers were on the inside and how to recognize them. This man also identified the types of men that would likely be victimized.
That way, Darius says, he could learn to avoid their mannerisms. The word rape is used often. When I ask Darius about whether he saw any attacks, he says, "I think they got some people. I don't know. He is standing next to me outside the jail, but his thoughts are locked inside. As he stands there at the Division 5 exit of the jail, Darius's disorientation is clear.