The Cook County Sheriff’s Office said Monday it had mistakenly rejected and returned 1,000 judicial election guides that Injustice Watch sent to eligible voters detained at Cook County Jail.
The guides, produced by Injustice Watch and printed in collaboration with the South Side Weekly, were mailed to the jail earlier this month to help people in pre-trial detention complete the long and often obscure judicial section of their ballots. Injustice Watch has produced Cook County judicial election guides since 2016, but this year marked the first time the organization sent print copies of their guide to voters currently detained in the jail.
Emails show Injustice Watch had been in touch with county officials about mailing the judicial guide to jail detainees since early September. One official wrote on Sept. 24 that she would “advise the mailroom” about the incoming guides.
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But on Monday, Hanke Gratteau, director of the Cook County Sheriff’s Justice Institute, notified Injustice Watch Executive Director Juliet Sorensen that the delivery had been botched at the jail, where about 75% of the people detained are Black, and 16% are Latinx.
Early voting began at the jail on Oct. 17, and nearly 1,800 of the more than 2,000 detainees expected to vote have already cast their ballots, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
“Following the Sheriff’s instructions, we raised funds to print and mail 1,000 copies of the guide to individual detainees,” Sorensen said in a statement. “To learn on the morning of Oct. 26 — after early voting at the jail is practically complete — that the guides were mistakenly rejected by the jail mailroom is profoundly disappointing and raises serious questions about whether Injustice Watch’s First Amendment right to disseminate its journalism was violated.”
Cook County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Matthew Walberg said in a statement the guides had been mistakenly rejected “because the mailroom erroneously believed there was a ban on distribution of newspaper.”
“This absolutely should not have occurred as our policy specifically allows for mail printed on newsprint to be disseminated to detainees. We are working to determine where the error in judgment took place,” Walberg said. “We have expressed our sincere apology to Injustice Watch leadership for our error, and we will be working with them to find ways to make this right to the fullest extent possible and to ensure that it does not happen again.”
In a separate letter to Sorensen, Cook County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Staff Brad Curry apologized for the mistake and said the agency will retrieve some of the returned guides and hand them out to jail detainees who have not yet voted.
Injustice Watch “printed and mailed [the guides] to individuals in custody at our direction, at great expense. There is no excuse for them being rejected and returned undeliverable,” Curry wrote. “We are committed to finding a resolution and working with you to repair any damage done by this error.”
Printing and postage costs to get the guide inside Cook County Jail exceeded $2,000. That doesn’t include hundreds of hours of work by Injustice Watch staff and South Side Weekly designer Davon Clark to prepare, layout and mail the print guides.
To offset those costs, Injustice Watch launched a fundraising campaign featuring nine postcards designed by local artists and two people incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center. Injustice Watch sent out packets of the postcards to each donor who gave at least $25, shipping 250 packets total.
Sorensen said that the jail’s error “robbed” those donors of the benefits of their effort to get the guide into the hands of detainees.
Injustice Watch also invited readers to Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown on Oct. 8 to help package and address the judicial guides — at a safe social distance — so they could be mailed to the jail.
Edith Tovar, a community organizer with the Little Village Environmental Organization, was one of more than two dozen people who showed up at the park.
“We do a lot of work at La Villita Park, which is across the street from the jail, and we’ve worked with other organizations to help folks register to vote at the jail,” Tovar said. “It sucks that folks won’t be able to get the guide so they are informed on how to vote, especially because a big reason why these folks are in jail is because of decisions made by some of these judges.”
South Side Weekly editor-in-chief Jacqueline Serrato also attended the packaging event at Ping Tom and was disappointed to hear that the guides had failed to make it inside the jail.
“The [Injustice Watch] judicial guide is providing essential context about people on the bench who make decisions on people’s liberty,” she said. “I grew up in Little Village, and Cook County Jail was basically in my backyard. I’ve had friends and family [go] through there, so this is personal.”
The primary election in March marked the first time voters detained at Cook County Jail could cast their ballot in person inside the jail. More than 2,000 detainees were expected to vote in the November election, according to Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart.
“It’s an amazing statement when these hurdles are being put everywhere up in the country to prevent people from voting,” Dart said at an Oct. 17 news conference. “At the same time here in Cook County, not only do we not put up hurdles, we insist on detainees fully engaged with their rights, and we will do what we have to to make sure they are voting. I think that’s a strong, powerful message for everybody.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the spokesperson for the Sheriff’s office. It is Matt Walberg. We regret the error.