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


  1. Wow! That's a lot to as they say "unpack".
    Did Dart really refer to visitors: as customers? And detainees as prisoners? Geesh
    People don't live at the jail they are being held most of the time because they can't post bail.
    What are your feelings regarding reform of the bail system
    How bout plea bargaining?
    The assumption that he's done the thing he's accused of is so, normal.
    Thanks for making sure we know nobody in your circle caught a case .
    Any idea what determination was made of mr tarshis' case?
    I've had several friends that ended up in county for short stretches . Bailed a couple out.
    Including one of my mentees . He's dead now .

    1. Oxford American definition of prisoner: “a person legally held in prison as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial.” And one definition of customer is “a person or thing of a specified kind that one has to deal with.” So I think Dart is on solid enough ground with his terminology. I’m not sure where you see evidence of assumed guilt.

  2. I spent a lot of time in the vicinity of Bughouse Square and the Newberry Library, but despite my intellectual pretensions, never ventured into the Library. I followed the Indians and the Hillbillies to Uptown, but eventually got away from the seedy bars and the people drifting in and out of the bars and the jails. If I'd been Nelson Algren, I could have mined that territory for some terrific stories, but only managed to accumulate a few black eyes, many broken hearts and a taste for cheap wine. Never got booked into Cook County Jail, but did manage to offend my way into a Milwaukee jailhouse -- no fun at all, even just a one night stand.


    1. Such a colorful life, Tate. I lived in Uptown for a few years in the '80s, and the most interesting things that I did were to "discover" Thai food at the Siam Cafe and enjoy being able to walk to Wrigley Field. If I'd been Nelson Algren, you'd have never heard of Nelson Algren.

  3. This should be required reading for all Jr high kids. It sounds as bad here, in real life, as it does in the movies and on TV.

  4. Been in the slammer twice. That was plenty for me.

    State Troopers kicked me around and locked me up after Kent State. It wasn't Cook County Jail, but it was in one of the outlying counties, and the basement cells pre-dated the Civil War, so it wasn't pleasant. When I asked to be taken to the hospital, the local cops laughed and took me outside to see if I could walk, whereupon one remarked: "If he runs, we'll have to shoot him."

    When the Cubs won their division in '84, plainclothes cops arrested me for ticket scalping. They confiscated my tickets and I spent the afternoon in the Town Hall lockup. After the game ended, the scalpers were booked and then the captain let us go. I remember thanking him so profusely that I nearly cried. That was a moment of complete and total submissiveness and subservience ("Thank ya, Mistah Boss Man! Thank ya!") that I've never forgotten. It's probably kept me straight ever since.


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