Cook County Jail History
Cook County was established on January 15, 1831 by the Illinois State Legislature. Chicago, then an unincorporated settlement with fewer than 60 residents, was designated the county seat. Due to a virtual absence of crime, a county courthouse and jail were not built until 1835. The first jail, located just North of the Chicago River, was a small wooden stockade that resembled a military fortress. Little is known about the structure’s size and the inmates that were held there due to a fire that destroyed many of the county’s early records.
But it is known that by 1850, the city’s growing population and rising crime rate rendered the stockade obsolete. A larger court and jail facility was built just North of what is now 54 W. Hubbard Street. Only offenders awaiting trial for serious crimes were held at the county’s Hubbard Street jail. Their trials proceeded quickly at the adjacent courthouse and those who were found guilty were sent to the State prison system to serve their sentence.
However, offenders who were arrested in Chicago for less serious crimes, like public drunkenness, fighting, and disturbing the peace, were not held at the county’s jail. Instead, the City of Chicago was responsible for detaining them at the city “Bridewell”, (an old English word for a jail used to house inmates on a short term basis). Built in 1852 at Polk and Wells Streets, the Bridewell was located near what was then the city’s vice district. Inmates were rarely held there for more than several weeks.
In the subsequent years, the inmate count at the Bridewell grew just as quickly as Chicago’s population. In 1871, just months before the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the Polk and Wells site, the Bridewell was moved to a new larger building at 26th and California, and officially renamed the Chicago House of Corrections. In its first year, the new facility’s inmate population doubled. An average of 419 inmates were held there each day. Until prison and legal reforms were made in the early years of the 20th Century, juveniles as young as 7 years old were held at the House of Corrections with the general inmate population and female offenders were housed in isolation in the same building.
Design for the County Jail and Criminal Court of Chicago, in course of erection (1874-1892, Hubbard St.)
Meanwhile, the county’s Hubbard Street jail experienced similar growth in inmates population. In order to stem the tide of overcrowding, several renovations and small–scale additions were made to the jail and court facilities.
But by the 1920’s the jail housed more than 1200 inmates, almost twice its designated capacity, and the courts were back–logged with cases due to a shortage of courtrooms. There was no room for additional expansion at the Hubbard Street site and city officials were anxious to move the jail away from the downtown business district.
So in 1928, construction was started on a new county jail at 26th and California, next door to the city’s House of Corrections. The new structure was finished by the end of the next year, and the adjoining Criminal Courthouse was completed soon after. The new County jail and neighboring House of Corrections had a combined daily population of more than 3200 inmates, which was then believed to be the largest concentration of prisoners in the free world.
Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, both the County Jail and House of Corrections met the challenge of overcrowding with some success. But by the mid 50’s the problem became overwhelming. The jail was often occupied by as many as 2400 inmates a day, twice its designated capacity. Management of the jail’s population was made more difficult by the presence of a large number of sentenced inmates who were previously shipped to the state prison system to serve their terms but were now being sentenced to time in the County Jail.
In 1929, only 7 percent of the Jail’s population was sentenced, while 93 percent were being held temporarily pending the outcome of their trials. By 1954, nearly 60% of the Jail’s daily population had been sentenced to terms as long as five years. The county had the additional burden of conducting executions, which was traditionally a state function, and maintaining a death row for those inmates awaiting their date with the County Jail’s electric chair.
As conditions at the County Jail continued to deteriorate, several community leaders and elected officials called for reforms in the county criminal justice system. In 1969, the Illinois State Legislature finally acted. They voted into law a statute that created the Cook County Department of Corrections which combined the County Jail and the city’s House of Corrections under one authority. Though the two facilities stood side–by–side at 26th and California and performed virtually the same tasks, they were run separately for more than 40 years. When the DOC was formed, staff and inmate populations from both facilities were combined to form one correctional institution.
Over the next 20 years, the DOC’s chief concern was dealing with the never ending problem of overcrowding. Spurred by a series of federal court orders to relieve crowding, the DOC oversaw the construction of several new jail builds.
Today the DOC administers eleven separate jail divisions, house nearly 10,000 inmates and employs more than 3800 correctional offices and support staff.