Absurdity of Courthouse Cellphone Ban Reaches New Heights

In recent weeks, the ban on possession of cellphones in a single courthouse for the Circuit Court of Cook County has gained an unprecedented amount of media attention with stories on NPR, in the Chicago Tribune and throughout local TV news. The attention resulted from a public push and pull to remove—and then quickly reinstall—lockers at the Leighton Criminal Courts building located in Chicago. Cook County now finds itself in the absurd position of having amongst the highest ranking administrators in the Adult Probation Department manning cell phone lockers which have not been shown to be necessary any other courthouse in the circuit or in many large urban courthouses throughout the country.

The cellphone ban prohibits all non-attorneys from bringing any cell phone, smart phone, tablet or laptop computer into the courthouse. The ban was established in 2013 by the Office of the Chief Judge, who cited security concerns over individuals recording and taking pictures of witnesses, victims, defendants, and/or court staff during proceedings. At present, the ban is enforced only at the courthouse at 26th and California where the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County processes felony cases arising in Chicago. Such a ban is not in place in several other large urban court systems throughout the country.

The Leighton Criminal Division Building is located at 2600 South California and is difficult to access by public transit from many areas of Chicago. Despite that, 90% of the people who arrive at 26th & California on any given day take buses and/or trains to get there. With the cell phone ban in place, these public transit users have no car in which to leave their phone or other electronics when they go inside the courthouse.

It is obvious to all readers, no doubt, the central role that cell phones and laptops play in modern life. Being unable to bring a phone or laptop that is needed for post-court work or family obligations easily turns the already inconvenient trip to 26th and California into a full half-day or more of travel. Witnesses, defendants, supporters, and victims have struggled to contact attorneys or get necessary information about which courtroom they need to be in without access to their cell phones. After court, they find themselves stranded by the combination of poor transit access and having no phone with which to coordinate a ride home or to work.

In order to deal with the need for cell phone storage, in 2013 the Circuit Court of Cook County installed a small number of free lockers for use at the courthouse. These small lockers fit only cell phones, and are limited in number. Many people attending court have been known to resort to hiding their cellphones outside under bushes or paying the food truck operator outside to store their phones for them when the lockers were full. Worse still, others have missed court dates, unable or unwilling to abandon their phone or laptop outside the building.

One year ago, the vendor who had managed the courthouse lockers abruptly left. The facilities management department informed the Office of the Chief Judge (OCJ), that it would staff the lockers, but only temporarily until another solution was found. A year passed with no progress in identifying a new vendor to operate the lockers. In the interim, facilities staff reported instances of people putting contraband (drugs and weapons) in the lockers.

Facilities management staff are not trained in security or law enforcement, and both Cook County Homeland Security and the Sheriff’s Office have expressed concerns about having lockers inside of courthouses. This concern has only grown in recent months due to events elsewhere in the world.

On February 19, 2016, facilities management informed the OCJ of their intent to remove the lockers on March 7, 2016. Ultimately, the lockers were not removed until April 1, 2016. Yet between February 19th and April 1st, no replacement vendor was found. So, on April 1st, lockers for cell phones were temporarily no longer available for use by all the people traveling to 26th and California without a bar license or a car.

After public outcry, the lockers were reinstalled—this time after security. Instead of arranging for a permanent, outside vendor, the Office of the Chief arranged for high-ranking individuals in the adult probation department to staff the lockers as a result of their non-union status. As a result, individuals such as the Deputy Director of Cook County Adult Probation, who has a myriad of important supervisory and administrative duties, is spending his/her days staffing the cellphone lockers.

What is the solution to this problem? The cellphone ban itself may have to be revisited. Currently it is incredibly easy to circumvent (one need only wear business attire and look like they are at the courthouse in the professional capacity to walk through the metal detectors with a cellphone and laptop in tow), the lockers have created their own security concerns while creating the hardships mentioned above, and other courthouses manage without such a ban by simply having courtroom deputees police cellphone use and disruption within each room. There is no reason presented by the Office of the Chief Judge that the Sherriff’s deputees, whose job description includes maintaining the proper courtroom environment and safety are not capable of this.

 

Visitation at Cook County Jail – Part 3

Cook County Jail is one of the largest single-site jails in the nation, occupying 96 acres on the city’s West Side. Most inmates are housed at the jail for only a short period of time before receiving a trial or being bailed out. It is common, however, for some inmates to spend months and in some cases even years in the jail before they are released or sent to prison. Receiving visits during incarceration can be incredibly beneficial for the morale of an inmate and their loved ones. Unfortunately, the process is often complicated, inconvenient and exhausting.

To find out more about  visiting an inmate at Cook County Jail, Cook County Justice Watch spoke to Patty Cloud, a member of Progressive Community Church. Patty has been visiting incarcerated members of the church’s congregation since 2011, and is involved in religious volunteer work in the Cook County DOC. In the first segment of this series,  Patty talked about the process of being cleared for visitation, which involves locating the inmate and being placed on their visitor list, submitting a visitor application and clearing a background check. In the second segment, she talked about visiting day and the process of conducting a conversation with an inmate through a metal grate that prohibits eye contact while speaking.

In the third and final segment of this series, Patti talks about just a few of the many obstacles she encountered while visiting or attempting to visit inmates and some improvements she feels could make visitation easier.

 

In this interview, she talks about the difficulty that older visitors may have navigating lengthy walks from check-in kiosks to their division. She also suggests that there must be somewhere inside the massive jail where visitors could sit while waiting to visit, sheltered from the elements, rather than standing outside for hours. Alerting families when a division or tier goes on lockdown  would help families to determine if a visit is even possible on a specific day, she says.

cook-county-jail-facilities
The Cook County Jail complex at 2700 S. California Ave. has 10 divisions.

Have you ever been held at Cook County Jail, or visited an inmate there? Please share your experience below. Cook County Justice Watch would like to know how you think the process of visitation could be improved.

Interview footage shot and produced by Rachel Hoffman. rachelehoffman.com/video/

Interview conducted by Ruby Pinto. 

Visitation at Cook County Jail – Part 2

Approximately 100,000 people are admitted into Cook County Jail every year, which maintains an average daily population of about 7,500. When a family member finds out that their loved one has been detained at the jail, their first response may be to attempt to visit as soon as possible. This process can be very challenging to navigate however, and often friends and family encounter setbacks that make gaining and maintaining access to visitation incredibly difficult and sometimes impossible.

To find out more, Cook County Justice Watch spoke to Patty Cloud about her experience with visitation at the jail. Cloud is a member of Progressive Community Church and has been visiting incarcerated members of the church’s congregation since 2011. In the first segment of this series, Patty talked about the process of being cleared for visitation, which involves locating the inmate and being placed on their visitor list, submitting a visitor application and clearing a background check.

 

Here, Patty talks about her experience on visiting day. Cook County Jail is located at 26th Street and California Avenue. While it is accessible by public transportation, the trip can be exhausting, especially for families with small children and elderly visitors. Once visitors arrive, they must wait outside, exposed to the elements, with nowhere to sit. Often, people will wait in line for hours only to find out that they have not been cleared for visitation, or that the division they were planning to visit has been placed on lockdown and will not be receiving visitors that day.

Patty also describes the experience of holding a conversation with an inmate through a metal grate like the ones shown below. These grates prohibit eye contact while speaking, making communication and connection difficult. Patty questions if this kind of restrictive environment is necessary to maintain safety and order in the jail.

grate
Visitation booths with metal grates to speak through.

In the final segment of this series, we’ll share Patty’s thoughts on how the visitation process might be improved in order to make visits more accessible and beneficial for inmates and their loved ones. If you’ve had experience with visitation at the Cook County Jail, please share your story with us in the comments section below. Subscribe to follow these segments.

Seven Escape From Illinois Jail in Two Days
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Interview footage shot and produced by Rachel Hoffman. rachelehoffman.com/video/

Interview conducted by Ruby Pinto. 

 

Visitation at Cook County Jail – Part 1

During an inmate’s time at Cook County Jail, a visit from a friend or loved one can mean a world of difference. A study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that prisoners who received at least one personal visit at any time during their incarceration were 13 percent less likely to commit another felony and 25 percent less likely to end up back in prison on a technical parole violation. Data showed that the more visits prisoners received, the lower their chance of recidivating after release. Visits can help to improve the morale and well-being of both inmates and their loved ones and maintain personal connections that prove to be crucial during re-entry.

However, gaining and maintaining access to visitation rights can be difficult, especially for those without access to resources and flexible schedules. Potential visitors must fill out an application and submit to a background check. They must also be in contact with the inmate they wish to visit, in order to be placed on the inmate’s visitation list. An online Inmate Locator may be used to find out where an inmate has been placed.

To find out more about the experience of visiting an inmate at Cook County Jail, we spoke to Patty Cloud, a member of Progressive Community Church. Patty has been visiting incarcerated members of the church’s congregation since 2011, and is involved in religious volunteer work in the Cook County DOC. We will publish a total of three segments on visitation, each covering a different aspect of Patty’s experience. In this first segment, Patty talks about gaining access to visitation, the challenges she and others have encountered throughout the process, and the impact that this process has on families.

Next week, Cook County Justice Watch will share Patty’s experience on visiting day, including the wait to see an inmate and the process of communicating during the visit. Subscribe to follow these segments.

front-gate-2
A gate visitors enter during visitation at Cook County Jail

 

Interview footage shot and produced by Rachel Hoffman. rachelehoffman.com/video/

Interview conducted by Ruby Pinto. 

The Chicago Community Bond Fund Is Taking On Cash Bond One Person at a Time

The Chicago Community Bond Fund Is Taking On Cash Bond One Person at a Time

Part 3 in our series on bond court in Cook County.

Read Part 1: ‘Disrespectful…inattentive and vindictive’ Cook County’s Bond Court.

Read Part 2: Public Defender Amy Campanelli On Reforming Cook County’s Bond Court.

As Public Defender Amy Campanelli continues to push for the necessary reforms to bond court as described in Part 2 of our series, individuals continue to be caught up in unnecessary pre-trial detention simply because they lack the resources to get out. Now, one group of Chicagoans is taking it upon themselves to pay bond for some of the thousands of people in Cook County Jail (CCJ) who have been granted bond but are unable to afford it. The Chicago Community Bond Fund is a new non-profit organization dedicated to ending the use of monetary bond in Illinois, and working to get people out of Cook County Jail in the meantime.

The basic problems with money bond

As has been well-known for a while, and as CCBF itself pointed out in a recent AREA Chicago article, cash bond is not good public safety policy. Despite claims that monetary bond ensures defendants return to court and discourages commission of new crimes, supporting evidence for those claims is weak to non-existent. For example, Washington, D.C. eliminated use of monetary bond decades ago, and instead established a Pretrial Services Agency (PSA) that uses risk assessment to make release decisions. Once released, defendants are supported by services that further increase their chances of succeeding while awaiting trial. A 2013 BJA funded study of unsecured bonds by the Pretrial Justice Institute found that unsecured bonds are as effective as secured bonds at both ensuring court appearance and achieving public safety goals such as avoiding re-arrest.

Though the benefits of using monetary bond are hard to confirm, the harms of pretrial detention are obvious and well-documented. People who are incarcerated simply because they cannot pay an often arbitrary amount of money may lose their jobs, housing, and even custody of their children. Family and community connections are damaged, the defendant is less able to participate in their own defense, and the chances of being convicted increase. Detained defendants who are convicted also receive significantly longer sentences than defendants who were not detained pretrial. Each one of these outcomes further decreases the defendant’s chances of future success and increases recidivism. In a review of over 150,000 criminal cases in Kentucky, the Arnold Foundation found that defendants who are detained “are over four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and over three times more likely to be sentenced to prison than defendants who are released at some point pending trial.” Perhaps the most compelling result of studying the impact of pretrial detention is the fact that when low- and moderate-risk defendants are detained even a few days, the odds of recidivation significantly increase. (Source.)

Non-financial conditional release, based on the history, characteristics, and reliability of the defendant, is more effective than financial release conditions. Reliance on money bail discriminates against indigent defendants and cannot effectively address the need for release conditions that protect the public. Pro-social interventions that address substance disorders, employment, housing, medical, educational, and mental health issues afford defendants the opportunity for personal improvement and decrease the likelihood of criminal behavior.”Guiding Principles of the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia

Who is in Cook County Jail?

Cook County Jail is no outlier by national standards. Frequently referred to as the largest single-site jail in the country, CCJ has around 70,000 admission every year. Like most jails, the vast majority of CCJ’s population is pre-trial. In early October 2015, fully 95% of CCJ inmates were awaiting trial. The vast majority of those behind bars were technically eligible for bond as set by a judge but were simply unable to afford it. In fact, over 150 of the nearly 9,000 people incarcerated in CCJ at that time needed to post only $500 or less in bond in order to be released. Also like most jails, CCJ is disproportionately Black. Despite the fact that only 24% of Cook County residents are African American, CCJ’s population was 73% Black in October 2015.

Introducing the Bond Fund

Chicago Community Bond Fund’s mission is, quite simply, to help people get out of CCJ. Growing out of a grassroots effort to bond out five activists arrested at an August 2014 community vigil for Desean Pittman, CCBF has now set its sights on less obviously political pretrial detainees. The group of activists, attorneys, and community members has established a revolving bond fund that will pay bond for people who simply cannot pay it themselves. In their words, “paying bond …  restores the presumption of innocence before trial and enables recipients to remain free while fighting their cases.” CCBF also plans to conduct teach-ins and other public education “about the role of bond in the criminal legal system and [advocate] for the abolition of money bond.”

Watch the short video below to hear CCBF co-founder Jeanette Wince speaking at the launch party on November 21, 2015. Jeanette begins by discussing how she and other family members raised bond money for those arrested in August 2014 by throwing house parties and holding raffles.

 

So far, CCBF has been focused on creating organizational structure and establishing guidelines for operation. Nevertheless, the group has found time to continue supporting broader causes of criminal justice reform and racial justice. After the release of the video showing a Chicago police officer shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times on November 24th, CCBF quickly established a bond fund for protesters who took to the street demanding justice and accountability. Now, CCBF has joined a coalition of groups to raise money to post bond for Naomi Freeman, a young Black mother in Cook County Jail after killing her abusive partner.

CCBF’s Adventures Posting Bond

On December 3rd, CCBF posted bond for their first client, and their experience reveals a lot about the hurdles ordinary Chicagoans face when trying to post bond for a loved one. Two CCBF members, Max and Ash, headed to Cook County Jail around 2pm on an ordinary Thursday. When Ash attempted to post bond, he was told that CCBF’s client, R., was serving a sentence and thus could not be bonded out. When Ash tried to ask questions, knowing that R. had not yet been sentenced, he was given no further information. The clerk merely repeated the same thing multiple times, and conveyed to Ash that R. would be released when her sentence was over in March 2016.

After calling R’s attorney and confirming that she had not yet been sentenced and was, in fact, eligible for bond, Max and Ash tried to figure out why the system was reporting an incorrect status. By chance, Max saw someone from the public defender’s office who he knew from when he interned there as a law student. That person was able to contact her supervisor in the public defender’s office, who in turn contacted a supervisor over in the bond posting office. Eventually, a little over an hour later, the county employees were changing shifts, so Ash sat in the office for 30 minutes while the shift change took place. After two more system errors and separate 15-20 minute delays, Ash was finally able to post bond around 5pm, and R. finally walked out of CCJ nearly 4 hours later (approximately 7 hours after Ash first tried to post bond). He noted that as a non-attorney with no special access to supervisors or court records, he would never have been able to correct the system error that reported R’s status as sentenced instead of pre-trial. During his time in the waiting room, Ash saw several people turned away from posting bond entirely and delayed due to system errors. As is unfortunately often the case in Cook County, it was only as a result of special access and connectionsand those mostly the result of Max’s status as an attorneythat Max and Ash were eventually able to post R.’s bond.

You can read more about CCBF’s client R and their other recent news in their newsletter.

 

The Campaign to Fire CPD Detective Dante Servin

The editors of Cook County Justice Watch feel it is important to present information on community organizing efforts in Cook County. This post highlights the work being done in the Movement for Black Lives with the #SayHerName initiative in Chicago. Movements like these often create necessary pressure to move policy and change the way that justice is delivered.

On March 21, 2012, Rekia Boyd was fatally shot by off-duty Chicago police detective Dante Servin. She was 22 years old. The shooting took place in the early morning hours in Douglas Park, a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side, when Servin fired multiple shots from an unregistered 9mm semiautomatic firearm over his shoulder into a crowd of people. When questioned, Servin claimed that he mistook a cellphone in a man’s hand for a gun. Witnesses say he appeared to be drunk at the time of the shooting.

In November 2013, Servin was charged with involuntary manslaughter, a charge determined by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. All charges were dismissed by Judge Dennis J. Porter, who ruled that because the shooting was intentional, Servin could not be charged with recklessness. “It is intentional and the crime, if any there be, is first-degree murder,” said Porter in his ruling. This directed verdict essentially meant that Servin was found not guilty, and returned to his job with the Chicago Police Department where he remains employed.

Upon delivery of the verdict, individuals from multiple organizations came together to support Boyd’s family and organize to have Dante Servin fired without a pension. They also shared a goal of keeping Rekia’s name alive. The #SayHerName initiative is deeply rooted in the campaign for justice for Rekia.

Since May of 2015, social justice advocates have attended monthly meetings of the Chicago Police Board, delivering testimony urging Superintendent Garry McCarthy and the CPD board to fire Dante Servin and end police brutality in Chicago. Cook County Justice Watch contributor Ruby Pinto spoke to two young organizers with BYP 100, an organization that has taken the lead on organizing turnout for monthly board meetings. She also spoke to Rekia’s brother, Martinez Sutton, who regularly attends CPD board meeting as well as actions against police brutality throughout the city.

In September, Chicago’s Independent Police Review Board recommended that Servin be removed from the Chicago police force, due to violation of CPD’s deadly force policy, failure to qualify with the weapon he fired that night and delivery of inconsistent statements to detectives, the State’s Attorney’s Office and IPRA.

Superintendent McCarthy must deliver a his decision within 90 days  of the IPRA recommendation and has stated that he will deliver a decision before the deadline. The next CPD board meeting will take place this coming Thursday, November 19th at 7:30 pm. CPD headquarters are located at 3510 S Michigan Avenue. A crowd of community members is expected to gather at 7 pm to fill the boardroom and deliver testimony.

martinezsutton

Martinez Sutton at a Vigil for Rekia at Depaul (5/12/15) – photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

 

 

 

Upcoming Interview Series: Chicago Votes

Our partners at Soapbox Productions and Organizing have teamed up with Chicago Votes staff to tell the story of what it’s like to grow up in an over-policed neighborhood in Chicago. These young organizers shared their perspectives on police accountability, our public school system, community safety, Black Lives Matter, and why they’ve chosen to work toward getting young people registered to vote and involved in politics. They also shared some spoken word pieces, providing a look at how young people express themselves through art.

During National Voter Registration Day, Chicago Votes registered over 1000 people on college campuses across the city. It will be interesting to see what impact the youth vote will have on crucial races to the administration of justice. Both Cook County States Attorney and Illinois State Senate elections will take place on March 15th, 2016.  In 2012, 35.2% of registered voters ages 18-24 voted in the general election.

The complete footage is set to debut in the coming weeks, but for now please enjoy this sneak peek. Stay tuned for updates on this exciting partnership.