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Cook County Jail's History

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The beginnings

Cook County was established by the Illinois State Legislature in 1831. Chicago, an unincorporated settlement with fewer than 60 residents, held the county seat. The first county jail and courthouse was a small wooden stockade built in 1835, outgrown 15 years later.

The county built a larger court and jail on Hubbard Street for offenders awaiting trial for serious crimes; once sentenced, convicts were transported to the state prison.

Offenders arrested in Chicago for less serious crimes were detained for days or a couple weeks at the city “Bridewell,” at Polk and Wells.

The city’s population rises, and so does crime

In 1871, the “Bridewell” was moved to 26th and California and named the Chicago House of Corrections, housing an average of 419 inmates daily. Until the early 20th Century, inmates as young as 7 years old were held with the general population; only female offenders were housed in isolation.

Overwhelmed with a continually overcrowding population, the Hubbard Street court and jail was renovated and expanded on a small scale. In the roaring ‘20s, the jail was housing almost twice its capacity at 1200 inmates, and a courtroom shortage caused a back-log in cases.

Although reluctant to move the county court and jail away from downtown Chicago, the county began developing next to the Chicago House of Corrections. The facilities had a combined daily population of approximately 3,200 inmates, which was then believed to be the largest concentration of inmates in the free world.

1903

A single-site jail merges

Population control was short-lived, and in the mid ‘50s the jail would oftentimes double its capacity at 2,400 inmates daily. The jail administration struggled to accommodate inmates that would have served time in the penitentiary but were now being county sentenced.

The responsibility of housing death row convicts sentenced was shifted from the state to the county, which only added responsibilities and complications to jail management. The demographics further exacerbated the issue, going from 7% county sentenced inmates in 1929 to 60% county sentenced inmates in 1954, some serving up to 5 year terms.

Deteriorating conditions called for criminal justice reform, and state legislature voted to merge the county and city jails into one correctional authority. After over 40 years of functioning independently, the Department of Corrections combined staff and inmates into one streamlined entity.

Spurred by a series of federal court orders and overcrowding, the CCDOC continued expanding the jail’s housing capacity.

Promising horizons

Sheriff Thomas J. Dart sponsored legislation such as the Rocket Docket, advocated for a cashless bond system and promoted electronic monitoring for non-violent offenders. Over the past decade, the total on-site detainee population went from near capacity to approximately 7,500 individuals. With less inmates to house, Division 5 is no longer an inmate housing unit, Divisions 3 and 17 were demolished, and Division 1, the “Bridewell” previously belonging to Chicago, has been decommissioned.

After more than 40 years of operating under the Department of Justice’s oversight, the Cook County Department of Corrections underwent a systematic overhaul and in 2017 was ruled in compliance with a federal consent decree.

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