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'Culture of brutality' in Chicago jail charged in lawsuit

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Prisoners at Chicago's Cook County Jail live in fear due to a "culture of brutality and lawlessness" that subjects them to physical abuse by guards, a civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago said on Thursday.

The complaint, brought on behalf of about 2,000 male prisoners, says detainees at the nation's largest single-site jail are stomped, kicked, punched and slammed to the floor by officers. The lawsuit contends such conditions flourish in large part because of the county's failure to address overcrowding.

County officials disputed the allegations in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, noting that court-appointed monitors have been reviewing conditions at the jail for four years.

Some 62,573 people are detained in the jail each year, most of them awaiting trial, the lawsuit noted, adding that jail inmates represent 1.2 percent of the total population of Cook County.

"A lack of professionalism and a violent, sadistic, cruel and sometimes racist and homophobic bravado pervades the ranks," of the officers working in the prison, the lawsuit said.

Attorneys with the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law filed the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, asking that the court prevent the county from subjecting prisoners to unlawful practices and policies. It seeks unspecified damages.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, who was named as a defendant along with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, called the lawsuit outrageous and without merit in a news conference on Thursday posted on the Chicago Tribune website.

Monitors were appointed as part of a 2010 agreed order with the U.S. Department of Justice, which had sued the county over jail conditions. Monitors file twice yearly reports "which do not appear to support these allegations," said Kristen Mack, a spokeswoman for Preckwinkle.

"We take this complaint seriously and will examine it," Mack said, adding that the board president "places a priority on ensuring the well-being of individuals who are detained at the jail and reducing the jail population."

Both Sheriff Thomas Dart and Preckwinkle have frequently complained about prison crowding and called for an increase in electronic monitoring for non-violent offenders.

A representative for the union for jail officers was not immediately available for comment.

Complaints have been expensive for the county - the lawsuit noted that in the last three years the county has approved settlements totaling $9 million in damages over complaints of civil rights abuses at the prison.

The lawsuit cited instances of officers beating shackled men until they lost consciousness, and then subjecting them to further abuse, such as banging their heads on steel doors.

Thursday's lawsuit contends that "little has changed" since the 2010 DOJ suit.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Bernard Orr)

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