Duante Browner was booked into the Cook County Jail for aggravated domestic battery in March 2015. Seven months later — while serving time at a state prison — he filed a lawsuit against the Cook County sheriff.
Browner, who is serving a three-year sentence in the Vandalia Correctional Center in south-central Illinois, wanted $20,000 for pain and suffering. He ended up settling in April for a fraction of that — just $750.
His was one of hundreds of low-dollar settlements Cook County has approved regarding jail conditions over the last two years. During each month’s County Board meeting, commissioners routinely sign off on these settlements, often with little or no discussion. As part of the deals the county admits no wrongdoing.
Browner, of south suburban Matteson, said he was held in a section of the county jail in Chicago with no television, no hot water, mold in the showers and a host of pests, according to court documents.
“Rats and rodents crawling all over the place, in my [food], also eating my [food]. Rats and mice on me while I’m sleep [sic], which messed me up mentally,” Browner stated in a federal civil rights lawsuit he filed in October 2015 against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs the massive jail at 26th Street and California Avenue.
His complaints echo that of others:
Inmate Patrick Lee Osborne filed a lawsuit in May 2015 about insects, poor living conditions and the quality of the food. “The food that they serve you is too bad. It is cool and is never hot. It makes you sick all the time,” according to Osborne’s hand-written lawsuit. He settled for $900.
Inmate Anthony Hayes sought $50,000 for “emotional stress” and “mental anguish” during his stay at the jail in April 2015. “No clean showers, mold on the sinks and the toilets and also in the showers,” Hayes wrote. He settled for $200 in 2016.
Inmate Jimmy Gordon claimed the jail’s unsanitary conditions were to blame for foot problems during his stay from March 2014 to March 2015.
He settled in April for $300.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has the authority to decide whether a suit should be settled or go to trial, though the County Board must approve the payouts. Since 2015, the board has approved about 230 settlements for $1,000 or less relating to alleged civil rights violations at the jail, according to the sheriff’s office.
Those settlements totaled $101,890 in payouts, according to the sheriff’s office.
A prison watchdog group cautioned against dismissing all the allegations, but a Dart spokeswoman said some of the suits are filed by inmates who simply have too much time on their hands. Some county commissioners said it’s cheaper to settle than to fight. But if the lawsuits are frivolous, why spend taxpayer dollars to settle hundreds of them? And if they’re not, can jail officials solve the problems that are leading to litigation?
Legit or ‘outrageous’?
Despite the small settlements, the lawsuits about jail conditions shouldn’t be dismissed outright because the claims inmates make in their lawsuits often mirror what’s actually happening on the inside, said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, the Chicago-based prison-watchdog group that has served as a federal court-appointed monitor of the jail from 1982 to 2009.
“Any citizen has a right to sue and and inmates should, too,” Vollen-Katz said. “There are certain ways we can call attention to injustice and to treatment that is inhumane.”
But one of Dart’s top aides cautioned against reading too much into the legal settlements or allegations that the jail violates inmates’ civil rights.
“These allegations can be completely outrageous,” said Cara Smith, the sheriff’s chief policy officer who formerly oversaw jail operations. “People in our custody do have a lot of time on their hands. News travels fast if they think this is some easy way to get money. It’s just the nature of running the largest single-site jail in the country just results in litigation. Anyone can file a lawsuit whether there is merit to it or not.”
But similar claims led to the jail being placed under the supervision of a federal court-appointed monitor from.
Conditions inside have gotten better, according to federal court monitors who have been doing periodic inspections of the jail since 2010 under a consent decree.
A report filed in January in U.S. District Court stated the jail showed “dramatic” improvement to medical and mental health care, safety and living conditions for inmates. Next month, a federal judge could release the county from most provisions of the consent decree, except those relating to mental health care and suicide prevention.
“We are vigilant about heat. We are vigilant about cold,” Smith said. “We have a robust pest control. We take very seriously the environment that the detainees have to live in when they are with us.”
To settle or not to settle?
Even if conditions are improving, lawsuits alleging civil rights violations at the jail continue, as do the payouts of settlements using taxpayer dollars.
So who decides which cases are outrageous, and which are worth settling?
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has discretion as to what cases below $100,000 get settled and which ones don’t. Tandra Simonton, a state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman, said the sheriff’s office is consulted on each case, but Dart’s office doesn’t make the final call on whether to settle.
But the Sherriff’s office says communication could be better.
“While the relationship and communication is greatly improved over the previous administration, we still have room for improvement,” Smith said in a written statement.
The proposed settlements then make their way to the County Board, where the small dollar amounts usually don’t warrant any discussion from commissioners before they approve the payouts en masse.
Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, said the goal is to protect taxpayer dollars.
“You figure out the cost of defense versus the amount of time and effort that needs to be put in [to fight the lawsuits],” said Suffredin, who sits on the subcommittee that signs off on legal settlements. “You settle them for a small amount of money just to get rid of them and not have them be a festering sore.”
But Commissioner Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park, who is the chairman of the subcommittee on litigation, said he is concerned about the number of civil rights cases that are settled.
“You have to weigh the cost of defending something versus settling,” Silvestri said. “Sometimes, however, you have to stick up for the principle.”
Silvestri added that some of the lawsuits may seem minor in nature, like when the sheriff fails to quickly release an inmate who has been found not guilty in a case, “until it happens to you.”
Smith said despite the gains at the jail, she knows it may not quell lawsuits from being filed by inmates.
“We are very mindful that what is at stake, whether it’s $200 or $200,000, these are taxpayer dollars,” Smith said. “We will always try to do these thing that is always in the best interest of the taxpayers. Our detainees have a lot of time on their hands. And filing a lawsuit is one way to occupy your time. We will never be able to stop people from filing lawsuits. Nobody wants to be in jail. We’re not going to see lawsuits stop. Hopefully, we will see fewer lawsuits settled. We will see more lawsuits won on the merits.”
Michael Puente covers Cook County and Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @MikePuenteNews.