Cook County commissioners consider protesters’ call to defund jail

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John Seasly

Hundreds of protesters called to defund the Cook County Jail on Thursday and reinvest the funds in programs that benefit Black and Brown communities.

Outside the Cook County Jail on Thursday morning, Tanya Watkins led hundreds of people, standing in the grass and driving in a line of cars that stretched for several blocks, in chants to defund the jail.

She wanted the protesters’ calls to get so loud they could be heard by the more than 4,500 people currently locked up beyond the barbed-wire fence behind her.

“Can you get that loud?” she called into a megaphone. The group responded with a cacophony of car horns, trumpets, drums and chants to “Defund CCJ!”

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The protesters’ demands were echoed later in the day in the virtual Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting, where Commissioner Brandon Johnson introduced a non-binding resolution titled “Justice for Black Lives.” It calls for the county to shift funds from the “failed and racist systems of policing, criminalization, and incarceration that have not kept our communities safe” to public services in Black and Latinx communities, such as housing, health care, and restorative justice.

“We have to come to terms with state-sponsored terror that has ruined and destroyed Black lives for generations,” Johnson told the board.

After emotional statements from several commissioners, the county board voted unanimously to move the resolution forward to its Criminal Justice Committee.

“I certainly would like to sponsor this important initiative,” Commissioner Bill Lowry said when it was his turn to speak. “Black lives matter. Black opinions matter. Black opportunities matter. Black dreams matter. Black fears matter. Black futures matter. Black education matters. Black businesses matter. Black churches matter. Black votes matter. Black creativity matters. Black families matter. My Black family matters.”

If the resolution passes in committee, it could be referred back to the full board at its next meeting on July 30. Though non-binding, the resolution could influence the county’s budget process for next year, which will take place over the coming months, Johnson said. Currently, more than 25 percent of the county’s general operating budget goes toward public safety, which includes the jail, prosecutors, and courts.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff Tom Dart’s office said the sheriff has invested in “programs and staff that address mental health, substance abuse disorders, poverty, opioid intervention, prostitution, homelessness, and violence as public health issues rather than just matters for law enforcement to address.”

“Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart has long been a leader in the effort to end unnecessary and unjust incarceration and reform policing,” spokesperson Kathleen Carmody wrote.

Outside the jail, those who said they had spent time behind its walls described inhumane, unsanitary and degrading conditions.

“There is no rehabilitative aspect to being in jail,” said Troy Gaston, 38, who said he was in the jail most recently on May 30 after being arrested in another protest. “Jail does not substitute for what’s missing in communities in the first place.”

Since 2010, the Cook County Department of Corrections’ budget has increased by more than 28 percent, adjusted for inflation. At the same time, the population of the jail has dropped by more than half. The 2020 appropriation amounts to more than $72,000 per person incarcerated on an average day, more than double what it was a decade ago. The figure includes “community corrections,” such as the Sheriff’s electronic monitoring program.

Activists said it’s time to reduce the jail’s budget and put that money toward things like health, mental wellness, housing, job creation and public transportation.

“Why not invest in things that keep communities safe?” asked Watkins, the acting director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, or SOUL. “These things are horribly underfunded.”

As the crowd marched to Dart’s office, chanting “Defund CCJ, fund my community,” Cassandra Greer-Lee held a 4-foot tall image of her husband Nickolas Lee, who died in jail in April after contracting COVID-19.

“I lost the battle for my husband but I’m out here because there’s still buildings and buildings full of human beings back there that are just being treated inhumane,” she said.

During a break from the board meeting, Johnson said that his resolution seeks to honor George Floyd, who cried out “I can’t breathe” at least 16 times while a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck, killing him.

“That is the cry of Black America: To be able to catch our breath, to breathe and live with dignity,” he said. “We have to have a budget that resists the anti-Black agenda that has gone forth for too long.”