Under the authority of Sheriff Tom Dart, Cook County inmates who’ve already been freed by a judge are taken back into the jail’s general population while they wait to be processed out.
It’s a practice that’s been called unconstitutional, and more than a year ago Dart told WBEZ he’d fix it.
But little has changed.
For one of the men who went through this process, Edward Shultz, going back into lockup turned out to be dangerous.
Shultz went before a Cook County judge in suburban Bridgeview around 10 in the morning on May 8, 2013.
There he pleaded guilty to unlawful use of a weapon, a misdemeanor.
Shultz had been picked up about three weeks earlier after police officers in Oak Lawn found brass knuckles in his glove compartment during a traffic stop. He was taken to Cook County jail at 26th Street and California Avenue on Chicago’s West Side and stayed there while he awaited trial.
After he pleaded guilty, the judge ruled that the 20-or-so days he had spent waiting was sufficient punishment and ordered Shultz be released.
Shultz says he was relieved and excited to go back to his family.
Before he could do that, he was taken back to a holding cell where he says he waited more than seven hours to be bused back to the jail.
Around 6 p.m. in the evening, Shultz was in handcuffs being ushered back into Cook County jail.
“By the time they get you back to the jail, you know, the shift change comes and they leave you and you’re still in handcuffs and they put you in a large room all handcuffed together,” Shultz says.
After that, Shultz was returned to the deck where he had been living and he started to gather his things.
“I went into the washroom, a group of inmates walked in and started asking me questions and I told them I don’t know I’m just getting ready to go home. I was struck by an inmate. And at that time I was still conscious and about maybe six or seven more inmates ran in the bathroom on me,” Shultz says.
After that, he says, he was knocked unconscious.
Another inmate came and helped him up, and offered him a rag to clean his face.
Then Shultz says he made a beeline for the jail’s phones and made a collect call to his grandmother, Lucy Griffin.
WBEZ obtained a recording of that call, and you can listen to it here. In it, Shultz sounds disoriented. He pleads with his grandma to arrange for someone to pick him up outside of the jail, although he doesn’t know exactly when he’ll get out.
“I just got beat up really bad,” he tells her. “The whole side of my head is swollen and face is swollen and my nose is broken.”
When he tells her the judge had given him credit for time served, she asks “Well, then why did you go back to jail?”
“Because you have to go back to jail until they call you out of here,” he says.
Shultz says it was only after he made the call that any guards noticed his injuries.
According to incident reports from the jail, Shultz had visible bumps and red marks on his head and face and a bloody nose.
Those reports list the time of the beating as 8:45 p.m., almost 11 hours after a judge had declared Shultz a free man.
The same month Shultz was attacked in a jail bathroom, Sheriff Tom Dart told WBEZ he wanted to change the way the jail handled inmates after a judge orders their release.
“We’re trying to get people out of the jail as quickly as possible,” he said in an interview with WBEZ’s Robert Wildeboer in May of 2013.
And Dart pointed to a pilot program that would allow workers in suburban courthouses to check for warrants and everything else so inmates can be discharged straight from court.
Cara Smith, the jail’s executive director, says that program is now in every suburban courthouse.
But so far, it’s only enabled two inmates to leave from the courthouse.
She says the sheriff’s office is doing its “very best” to improve the discharge process. But she couldn’t say that the wait time has gotten any shorter for the typical inmate.
“Our two primary goals are overall to get people released as quickly as possible, but to make sure the right people are being released. We have a very, very antiquated system … it’s paper-based primarily,” Smith says. “We have to be extremely careful that we’re not releasing the wrong individual.”
In order to do that, workers at the jail have to go through the paper records to check for outstanding warrants before they can let an inmate go.
Attorney Patrick Morrissey agrees the sheriff should be doing these thorough checks. But he says the process is way too long, and unsafe for the people waiting to be released.
“These are people who are entitled to their freedom. And people who are entitled to be free should be released in the most efficient and timely manner,” he says.
Morrissey is representing Shultz in a lawsuit against Tom Dart and Cook County.
That lawsuit is on top of the ongoing class action suit brought over the discharge process.
Shultz’s federal complaint blames poor supervision at the jail for his beating.
And it alleges that Shultz never should have been at the jail more than 10 hours after a judge had declared him a free man.
Morrissey says he knows it is tough to change a system as big and old as Cook County’s.
“But I don’t think there’s been enough attention and focus by the sheriff’s office to really retool the system,” he says.
He adds that one fix could be to have a separate waiting room at the jail.
That would keep people who have already been freed away from the general population while their paperwork is processed.
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.