Illinois taxpayers will bear the brunt of a settlement approved by Cook County Board Commissioners resulting from a lawsuit over the rough treatment of incoming male inmates by jail guards. The lawsuit targeted the regular procedure by guards of subjecting inmates to strip searches while demeaning and verbally abusing them.
The lawsuit covered the period from Jan. 30, 2004 through March 19, 2009. Plaintiffs’ lawyers said that incoming inmates were regularly lined up, shoulder to shoulder, in groups as large as 100 and forced to strip while guards bombarded them with “sexually derogative epithets.” Even those detained for minor traffic violations were subject to the abuse.
During the period, as many as 250,000 men were put through the procedure, which the lawyers compared to brutal form of hazing. Besides attempting to locate contraband, the practice was intended to “put the inmates in their place”, according to Mike Kanovitz, the lead attorney on the case.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart defended the strip searches as necessary for security purposes and said that the department was working on ways to improve jail procedures. Incoming inmates are now searched using electronic scanners like those that have been used for years at airport security checkpoints.
The Cook County Board of Commissions decided to settle the case after the county lost a series of ruling in a federal court case that was filed in 2006. The commissioners were worried about an even higher judgment if the case went to trial. A similar case involving incoming female inmates cost the county $6.8 million several years ago, but the Sheriff’s department failed to change its procedures regarding male inmates.
Of the $55.3 million settlement, about $10 million will be covered by insurance, while the other $45 million will paid by taxpayers, and added the county’s already massive $285 million budget deficit estimated for next year.
Under the settlement, detainees can file for awards ranging from $500 to $1,000. The lawyers in the case will collect $15 million of the settlement proceeds.