Pointing to drug overdoses in the jail, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office this week banned visitors from bringing in paper, including documents routinely carried by attorneys fulfilling their constitutional duty to provide legal counsel to detainees.
The facility, which has about 5,560 detainees, is among jails and prisons across the country contending with an influx of paper soaked with illegal narcotics, bug killer and even rat poison, according to Dart’s office, though his spokesperson would not provide any numbers on overdoses tied to deadly paper.
“Cook County Jail has experienced a concerning rise in the discovery of such contraband and the significant harm it can cause,” the sheriff’s spokesperson wrote. “Jail policies and procedures must adapt, as they always have, to the ever-evolving ways in which individuals attempt to introduce dangerous contraband.”
Dart’s office said it designed the new rules “to limit any potential negative impact on operations and inconvenience to visitors, including defense attorneys,” and that the rules were discussed with Cook County Public Defender Sharone R. Mitchell Jr.’s office.
But some leaders of that office seemed surprised and distressed by the restrictions, according to emails obtained by WBEZ.
Amy Thompson, a deputy public defender, wrote to colleagues Tuesday that the jail was “not allowing ANY paper to be brought to ANY division.”
“We are working on an alternative and will update you as soon as we have any more information,” Thompson wrote.
On Wednesday afternoon, a statement from Mitchell said his office was working with Dart’s people on “a protocol that would allow public defenders to share information with their clients while the jail works on a long-term solution to address the security concerns about paper.”
Also Wednesday afternoon, the spokesperson for Dart’s office wrote that “attorneys will be provided access to computers to display documentation to their defendants.”
“They may still bring in paper if necessary but must schedule it ahead of time to give the jail time to examine the material,” the spokesperson wrote.
Dart’s office said it has also intensified its screening of incoming mail for paper soaked with drugs.
Nationally, jail deaths tied to drug and alcohol intoxication reached a 20-year high of 184 cases in 2019, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Mitchell’s statement said his staff is “unaware of any accusations that our attorneys wittingly or unwittingly brought contraband into the Cook County Jail.”