The Big Chill: Inmates contend Cook County cheating on ensuring warm jail cells

Cook County officials have been reporting cozy temperatures from inside jail cells. But lawsuit shows: They weren't taking those temperatures inside the cells.

On Jan. 27, 2014, a Cook County employee noted that the temperature in cell 3B-3301 was 75 degrees. The next day, the worker recorded the same thing. A week and a half later, the worker again recorded the temperature in that cell at 75 degrees.

But those records may not have been exactly what they appeared. For the worker did not set foot into cell 3B-3301 those days to take the temperature that he recorded and passed along to the U.S. Department of Justice. Instead, Department of Facilities Management employee Martin Mahoney admitted under oath that he was in another room, on another floor altogether, when he took those temperatures.

And on some days when emergencies arose, Mahoney testified, he wrote down cell temperatures without taking any temperature readings at all.

Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.

The admission by Mahoney came as he gave a sworn deposition as part of lawsuit by two inmates who contend their cells were so cold, on some days, that ice was frozen inside.

County officials agreed in 2010 to the regular check of temperatures inside cells, as part of a settlement with the Justice Department, which concluded after an investigation that inmates were being kept in unsafe and unsanitary conditions inside the jail. Under the agreement developed to ensure inmates’ rights are not violated, temperatures throughout the facility are supposed to be kept between 68 and 77 degrees, checked three times a day, and a record of those checks is regularly submitted to the Justice Department.

Responsibility for jail conditions is shared between the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Cook County Department of Facilities Management, which is under the County Board of Commissioners. Representatives for both the sheriff and the county this week denied the allegations of extreme cold temperatures.

Preckwinkle and Dart

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Sophia Ansari said in an emailed statement that the office “strenuously” disputes the allegations in the complaint. Chief Spokesman Frank Shuftan for Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle declined to comment on the pending litigation, but added that both the county and the facilities management department “have been found to be in full compliance with a consent decree entered into between the County and the United States Department of Justice governing conditions of confinement at the Jail.”

In their answer to the complaint, the sheriff’s office and facilities management denied the allegations that employees take temperatures in rooms other than in the cells themselves.

The attorney for the two inmates this week contended that the procedure officials created to ensure that the cells are not too cold has created a cover-up, with jail officials relying on false numbers to deny the inmates’ claims. “Cook County Jail is not even a prison, these people have not even been convicted,” said attorney Paul Vickrey. “Yet they’re subjected to these conditions and a system where documents are continuously being falsified to cover up bad conditions.”

One guard has testified seeing ice inside inmates’ cells in the past and has noticed a problem with cold cells in the last three years.

Corrections Officer Darral Alexander testified in a deposition that he had seen ice and frost inside cells in the jail facility, as well as having heard several inmates complain of cold cells that he has agreed with in some cases.

He also testified that he does not regularly see staff taking temperatures in cells other than “when I report that I’ve got a cold cell or I’ve got inmates complaining of being cold in a cell.”

Attorney Vickrey said that while the Department of Facilities Management is responsible for gathering the temperatures, the Sheriff’s Office is supposed to immediately investigate claims of abnormal temperatures in cells, making them both responsible and “complicit.”

Omar and Ricky

Cook County Sheriff's Office

Inmates Omar Williams (left) and Ricky Whitehead.

The inmates who brought the lawsuit, Ricky Whitehead and Omar Williams, both allege that the cell they were confined to for 18 hours a day had ice and frost on the walls. The recorded temperature for their cell consistently exceeded 70 degrees, records in the lawsuit show.

Whitehead, one of the inmates who filed the lawsuit, alleges that extreme cold in cell 3B-3301 prevented him from sleeping, adding that he knew the temperature was below freezing because his liquids and lotions in the cell would freeze, according to official court records.

“It felt like my bones were actually cold, like the blood was freezing,” Whitehead testified in a deposition provided by Vickrey’s office to Injustice Watch.

Williams, the other cellmate, said in a deposition that he could see his breath inside the cell, and that he couldn’t sleep regardless of the four pairs of socks and two blankets he wore to bed.

“I would get mad because there was nothing I could do about the cold,” Williams testified.

The cellmates both filed a grievance complaint with the jail in late January 2014 regarding the temperature of their cell through official channels, documents show. Both men also alleged that they made several verbal complaints to correctional officers and a lieutenant at the jail.

Williams and Whitehead’s official grievance complaints were not referred to the Department of Facilities Management until a week after they were made, court records show. It took two additional days before someone was sent to work on the actual cell.

In February 2014 three engineers spent a total of 2.5 hours working on the issue, but none recorded the temperature of the cell, as the county procedures required.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, representing the Sheriff’s office and the facilities management department, originally moved to dismiss the lawsuit based on the daily records of the cell’s temperature, according to attorney Vickrey. Department logs indicate it was between 70 and 77 degrees in Williams and Whitehead’s cell between January 27 and February 6, 2014.

The State’s Attorney’s office declined to comment.