Judge nudges Cook County to settle complaint of freezing jail cells

A federal judge has declined to dismiss Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and another county official from a lawsuit alleging that officials failed to protect inmates from extreme cold temperatures in their jail cells in the early months of 2014.

The judge, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Ruben Castillo, also advised the county officials that they should “reevaluate their settlement positions” before the next hearing in the case next month.

The inmates who brought the suit, Ricky Whitehead and Omar Williams, contend the cell they were confined to for 18 hours a day was so cold that frost accumulated on the walls and that their breath was visible inside the cell, according to court documents. Both inmates said they suffered sleep deprivation because of the extreme cold.

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The inmates have sued Dart, Cook County, Department of Facilities and Management director Bilquis Jacobs-El, and three other facilities employees.

Both Dart and Jacobs-El sought to be dismissed from the suit, contending the inmates had failed to show how they might be responsible. But Castillo ruled in early July that the allegations of the inmates’ lawsuit, if proven true, state facts that would make the officials responsible.

The inmates contend that temperatures recorded by facilities department workers falsely report the temperatures in the cells, and that officials failed to respond to their complaints about the freezing temperatures in a timely way. The lawsuit also alleges that the sheriff and the facilities department have joint responsibility for the temperature of the jail, the judge wrote.

Those allegations, the judge ruled, would be enough, if true, to establish a “systemic pattern – perpetuated by both the Sheriff’s office and Facilities Management – of exposing inmates to extreme temperatures.”