Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Flashback 2011: Those in want out, those out want in
Have you ever gone to visit a relative in the Cook County Jail?
I have. It isn't easy.
It wasn't MY relative, I should rush to add, but a reader's, who invited me along. I went because I tend to go where I'm asked.
I'm on vacation this week, taking a break from work at the paper to work on the next book. If you're at the Newberry Library today and you see someone who looks like me, drift over and say hello. Quietly.
Every Thursday since the arrest of his son July 30, Neal Tarshis rolls his wheelchair to a bus stop to begin a trek to Cook County Jail.
"I see him as much as they let me," says Tarshis, over the rumble of the #93 bus. "I want him to know someone cares."
Tarshis, 63, in a wheelchair because of severe arthritis, lives in Astoria Place, a nursing home at 6300 N. California. It is a two-hour, four-bus commute—the #93 to the #82 to the #126 to the #94—to get to the jail at 3000 S. California. Once, he says, he made the trip only to find he couldn't get in to see his son.
"I went with Neal," said a friend. "They changed visiting hours without notice. They didn't treat him nice. It was a nightmare."
Tarshis wrote to me to complain, and since I couldn't go back in time and observe how he was handled or mishandled at the jail, the thing to do was to go with him and watch.
Some 11,000 prisoners live at the jail, giving it the population of Edison Park. The mayor of the jail, so to speak, is Sheriff Tom Dart, and if you expect him to be defensive about mistreated visitors, you'd be wrong.
"I detest apologists rationalizing bad behavior," Dart said. "Sometimes there's elements of truth in both sides. There are times when I scratch my head why we're not treating someone with more respect who comes to visit." Dart sympathizes with the 1,000 or so daily visitors, who must pass through tight security for their 15-minute visit.
"These are decent people and we're not treating them with a red carpet," the sheriff said. "They've gone through hell enough as it is, lives turned upside down by a grandson or a nephew. These are grandparents coming in, aunts and uncles. They've done nothing wrong. How does it work for our office to treat people like trash?"
But he also sympathizes with his officers.
"Objectively, I challenge someone to find a more difficult job than being a correctional officer," he said. "It's a very, very difficult job. Can the public be unreasonable? Yes. Can the correctional officer? Yes. But we've tried to be much more customer-friendly."
Two hours is a long time on buses, and Tarshis reminisces about his son, a Navy vet.
"I have so many memories of when he was little," said Tarshis. "He was very intelligent, very responsible. He got A's in all his subjects. He's not a bad child, he's sweet."
His son, 36, has too many problems to summarize here. Suffice it to say this is his third time in jail, not for a grave crime—he didn't kill anybody—and I'm not using his name to make it easier if he pulls himself together.
Tarshis and I join a long line outside the tall concertina wire-topped fence around the jail. The guards take us five at a time, ordering us to have our IDs ready, reminding us that we cannot bring in cell phones or pens.
Once, visitors were told to bury their contraband in the bushes outside. Now Dart has been installing vending machine lockers.
We go through metal detectors and are frisked by guards; their manner is severe but not rude and I get the impression that so long as you immediately do exactly what they say it goes smoothly, but that any hesitation or resistance might invite rougher treatment.
We give our names, wait more, then are ushered into a long room, 15 at a time, with stools bolted to the floor. Fifteen prisoners in sand-colored jail garb emerge on the other side of the Plexiglas. It's loud and hard to hear. The jail used to use phones, but those were destroyed by angry inmates and visitors. Now there is a round red metal plate, the holes staggered to keep drinking straws filled with cocaine from being pushed through.
His son, gaunt, his head closely sheared, is all jangly intensity—I expected to watch him and his dad talk, but he wants to talk to me, a compressed stream of complaint and indignation about the jail. Next to us, a mother puts a toddler on the counter and the girl presses her hands flat against the glass.
That's another issue Dart grapples with—there can be a child at one spot, a profanity-laced tirade at the next, and a woman holding up her shirt to flash her breasts at a third.
"There are loads of kids there," said Dart, proud father of five kids. "And a strong part of me says that's not a good environment for any child. I don't want kids seeing this stuff. The other side is, if they're connecting with their father, that's a good thing, too. We can't do it any other way because we have so many visitors, so many prisoners. You want to make it better. I'm struggling how to pull that off."
Dart would like remote video visits, to save families the trip, but "there's no money."
The next court date for Neal Tarshis's son is Nov. 2, which means one thing. "I get to make four more visits," he said.
—Originally published in the SunTimes, Oct. 9, 2011