Darius Roberson emerges from this pack of men, dazed and squinting. He is easy to spot because he is standing still. He is a large man, dark skinned and mumbling to himself in frustration. While the other men run, Darius pauses and looks around as though he is trying to find visual landmarks to tell him where he is. At one point, he even walks back into the jail for help, fighting his way upstream while everyone else who knows better is swimming the other way. I push upstream as well and hear Darius mumble, "There's a total lack of information. The temperature is below freezing, but the men running from the jail are dressed for a different season, frozen in time, wearing the same clothes they were arrested in during the summer.
They wear cotton jackets and sweatshirts; some men wear T-shirts. Aren't they supposed to give you a jacket? Another man stops. I wasn't going to risk it. It's hard to say if it's more degrading or inaccurate. Either way, it sounds like a cruel joke—why bother having a box of coats if you can't at least make sure they're not contaminated? Once the man realizes that I can't help him with his case or get him a ride home, he starts running again but yells back at me. They held him back for a little bit because he got nowhere to go. I don't know what's going to happen to him.
He lives under a bridge.
They should help him or something! The men run as they give these warnings and tips, leaving me to hustle with them just to hear what they have to say. Darius comes up to me and confesses, "I took one of the bedbug coats. I figured I had no choice. Being released on bond from the Cook County Jail is a sort of "Hunger Games" footrace into a landscape of vacant lots, smokestacks and abandoned buildings.
Shoes hang by laces over electrical wires. Gang tags cover concrete walls. Side alleys are festooned with yellow "rat control" signs stapled to wooden poles. Well-worn plastic sheeting hangs on fences to block the imposing view of the Cook County Jail from those living on the other side of the rusted chain-link. The majority of those incarcerated are young African American or Latino males under the age of 34, from Chicago's South Side and West Side—a perversely convenient arrangement, as the jail is closest to its target population.
Darius fits this profile, but it is clear that he does not know the rules of engagement. He doesn't understand that he had better be running, and it is clear that he is unaware of the dangers that face him outside the walls of the jail. And anyway, he doesn't have that many choices. If you stand in front of the Division 5 exit and face south, factories, smokestacks and sidewalks route you away from civilization and toward absolute darkness.
Some men unfamiliar with the area try their luck in that direction.
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If you look to the left, into the distance on 26th and California, there is the Popeyes, the only sign of life save for Luis's parking lot in the alley right next to it. Once you get to that corner—26th and California—you see the freeway entrance to your right and a long, desolate stretch of dark terrain that traces the walls of the jail.
About three city blocks west on 26th Street is a Walgreens, the first store and sign of civilization. The cashier there says that men often arrive at the store with blood on their faces, asking for modest help: a paper towel, a phone to call home, momentary safety. If you're lucky enough to have someone waiting for you, you can go straight out of the jail to California Avenue, where cars idle in a line, waiting for those who have just bonded out. Children play on iPads that shine through the dark windows of worn minivans.
Others sleep with their hoods covering their faces. Exhaust fumes keep the cold air thick. The tired prisoners pile in and exchange quick hugs with their loved ones, and cars pull away and head to I south. Darius doesn't know what waits to the right or the left. No one is waiting for him. As the rest of the men run past, Darius asks quietly, Where am I? What day is it? Darius was arrested two days ago, but in his disorientation, he thought it was three days.
He had just gotten a new roommate, and there was an argument. The argument had escalated and become violent, and Darius had the defensive wounds on his arms to prove it. He had blocked his head and face while the roommate was in a rage. It was clear that Darius needed somebody to know that he was innocent, and showing his wounds was helping him prove his case. When the police had arrived at Darius's home, he was indignant. He was appalled at being beaten by someone he lived with and furious that the police were at his door. His defensive wounds didn't matter to the cops. His words didn't matter.
None of it mattered. His outrage was enough to get him arrested; his attacker was left to go about his business. Darius's phone was taken at the police station. He spent the days trying in vain to remember even one number from that phone, just one person he could call to post his bond.
Then he wrestled with fear: missing work and failing to call in sick could get him fired.
But even if he could call, how could he tell his boss where he was? Shame and desperation are a poisonous mix. You need help to get out of jail, but the shame of being there prevents you from asking for it. The trauma from the beating at the hands of his roommate, the disorientation—first of the lockup, then the windowless bus—and now the constant chaos and the relentless air of violence at the county jail left him with little memory or capacity to think. To the world, Darius had just vanished.
Inside the wall, days turned into nights with no markers of time. Was it hours passing, or were those days? But Darius had never been in jail before, and he was scared. The more you protest your innocence, the more the officers hassle you; the more questions you ask about when you get to leave, the longer you are going to be there.
Darius got lucky, though, managing to align himself with a kindly inmate who taught him the rules of engagement—the threats from the gangs, who the power brokers were on the inside and how to recognize them. This man also identified the types of men that would likely be victimized. That way, Darius says, he could learn to avoid their mannerisms. The word rape is used often. When I ask Darius about whether he saw any attacks, he says, "I think they got some people.
I don't know. He is standing next to me outside the jail, but his thoughts are locked inside. As he stands there at the Division 5 exit of the jail, Darius's disorientation is clear. He can't turn right because that's Latin gang territory. Left is Popeyes, which isn't safe anymore. Where on earth can he turn? T here is a new sheriff in town. His name is Tom Dart, and like the new state's attorney, Kim Foxx , Dart thinks of himself as a reformer. He famously wears street clothes on the job instead of a uniform and has said that half of the inmates at the Cook County Jail shouldn't even be there.
He has evinced sympathy for the third of the inmates at the jail who are mentally ill which makes the Cook County Jail the biggest, and worst, mental-health facility in the country. Further laying claim to the reform mantle, one of Dart's spokespeople told me that everything the sheriff's office does "is done in a just way despite being a component in an unjust system. Law enforcement officers adore this kind of talk.
When he talks about the "unjust system," he's talking about them. I found several in my time at the jail who were quite open with their feelings about the sheriff. That fucking guy? The rank and file call him Sheriff Goofy for implementing programs that teach inmates how to cook, play chess, create art and manage anger and trauma through yoga and meditation. They see Dart's sympathy for inmates as mostly a play for good press and figure that Dart is campaigning for mayor on the public dime.
But the officers also see the reform sheriff as an affront to their prerogatives and to their safety. This is their goddamn jail. In the years before Dart took over the sheriff's office, the average length of stay at the Cook County Jail increased by 6. But since Dart went on " 60 Minutes " last year and told the world that half the inmates in his jail shouldn't even be there, he has worked to lower that number—by reforming bail so that the county doesn't hold people just because they can't afford to bond out Dart was court ordered to do so and establishing a "rocket docket" for nonviolent offenders to process their cases in 30 days or less.
And he has done something a little more controversial—he has increased home electronic monitoring EM to transfer inmates home, essentially warehousing them in the neighborhoods. This often happens in the dead of night. S hortly before midnight, Andy and nine other inmates sit in a Cook County sheriff's van near one of the checkpoints around the jail.
They have been waiting there for two hours. Their driver and guards, two Cook County sheriff's officers, smoke cigars in the distance. At first, Andy and the other defendants were pissed off, confused, and used the first hour in the van to complain about the absurdity of being driven feet from the Cook County Jail only to sit at a sheriff's station while the good ol' boys savored their smokes.
With the second hour in the van came the silence that accompanies submission. The two officers were supposed to be returning Andy and the other released inmates to their homes, setting up each man with an ankle bracelet, to shift their incarceration from the jail to their homes. But by the third hour, Andy realizes that these officers have decided to let the next shift deal with the vanload of anxious prisoners. As the men watch from the windows of the van, the officers talk and joke and smoke as though they were off duty. Andy thought he was one of the lucky ones; and an inmate allowed to go home on EM is lucky indeed.
After hours in the bullpens and being shuffled from cage to cage, he was sorted into a select group of low-risk prisoners who would be tethered to their houses. He would finally see his girlfriend, who was preparing a meal, and he wouldn't have to wear a jail jumper. Soon, after 48 hours of transport, intake and incarceration in Cook County Jail, there would be a homecoming. All of this, he says, was a result of a political protest gone wrong. He doesn't really want to talk about it in any detail, but he was arrested and accused of destroying public property, and that was enough to commence punishment before a conviction.
The judge seemed to want to teach Andy a lesson. He had no felony record, but his bond was set high. But he'll be out, and sort of free. In anticipation of his release, earlier in the evening Andy had received meticulous instructions from the officers about how his journey home from the jail would go down. If the prisoners didn't follow the instructions to the letter, they would be sent back to the jail, with dim future prospects of release. Andy was told that he and the other EM prisoners would leave in a secured van around 10 p.
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