Cook County approved $55.3 million settlement for 250,000 people wrongfully strip-searched at Cook County Jail

Most of the 55.3 million settlement to come from county budget

By: Hal Dardick & Tricia Nadolny, Chicago Tribune: November 16th, 2010

Taxpayers must cover most of a $55.3 million settlement approved Tuesday by Cook County to compensate as many as 250,000 people who were strip-searched at the county jail, often in mass lineups and even if they were detained for charges as minor as traffic violations.

Some of the degrading practices – including strip-searches of dozens of men at a time – continued until 2009, years after the county paid out $6.8 million for a similar case filed by women, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.

“It was insanity for people … to assume that you could do one thing to females and get sued, but you could do the same thing to males and not get sued,” said Commissioner Earlean Collins, D-Chicago.

The 14-1 County Board vote to settle the case came after the county lost a series of federal court rulings in a lawsuit filed in 2006. “It’s in the best interests of the county financially to settle now” rather than face higher costs if it lost at trial, said Assistant State’s Attorney Patrick Driscoll, the county’s top civil lawyer.

About $10 million will be covered by insurance, and about half of the remaining $45.3 million can be covered with existing funds. The rest will worsen a shortfall expected to top $285 million next year, officials said.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has defended strip-searches as necessary for jail security, while working to improve the procedures. The county did not admit wrongdoing and now does nearly all searches of incoming inmates with electronic scanning devices like those currently used in many airports.

But that was not the case for as many as 250,000 people – most of them men – who were searched between Jan. 30, 2004, and March 19, 2009, when the last of the machines went online.

“The jail’s administrators knew exactly what was going on, for years,” said Mike Kanovitz, the lead attorney for the former detainees. “And they allowed this to happen.”

In many cases, large groups of as many as 100 men entering the jail were lined up, body-to-body, against a hallway wall, Kanovitz said. They were forced into “dehumanizing and vulnerable positions,” and guards bombarded them with “sexually derogatory epithets,” Kanovitz said.

He described the searches as a brutal form of hazing, ostensibly to find contraband, but really intended to put detainees “in their place.”

At a news conference Tuesday, some of those who sued recalled their experiences.

William Jones said he cannot forget the mass strip search he was subjected to after he was jailed in 2005 on charges of driving on a suspended license.

“They told us, ‘You have three seconds to put your underwear on,’ “Jones said. “And then when we started to put our underwear on, they said, ‘OK, someone down here is not cooperating, so pull them off again.’ And we went through that routine for a few times.”

Under the settlement, detainees from the period covered by the suit can file for awards ranging from about $500 to about $1,000, depending in part on whether they were jailed on a felony or misdemeanor charge.

Allen “Lucky” Gorman, 70, was among those searched twice, the first time after missing a traffic court date and the second when he was jailed for catching a raccoon without a license, he said. “There was a guy three men down from me who had scales and was wiping scales off his body,” he said.

The many lawyers in the case will get $15 million of the settlement money, Driscoll said. The rest will go into the fund to compensate former detainees.

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