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'Culture of brutality' in Chicago jail charged in lawsuit

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Prisoners at Cook County Jail in Chicago live in fear due to a "culture of brutality and lawlessness" that subjects them to physical abuse by guards, charged a lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago on Thursday.

The civil rights complaint, brought on behalf of about 2,000 male prisoners, claims that detainees at the nation's largest single-site jail are stomped, kicked, punched and slammed to the floor by officers. The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court contends that the conditions flourish in large part because of the county's failure to address overcrowding.

Some 62,573 people are detained in the jail each year, most of them awaiting trial, the lawsuit noted, adding that jail inmates represent 1.2 percent of the total population of Cook County.

"A lack of professionalism and a violent, sadistic, cruel and sometimes racist and homophobic bravado pervades the ranks," of the officers working in the prison, the lawsuit charged.

Attorneys with the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law filed the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, asks that the court prevent the county from subjecting prisoners to unlawful practices and policies, and seeks unspecified damages.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Thomas Dart, both of whom were named as defendants, had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. The two officials have frequently complained about prison crowding and called for an increase in electronic monitoring for non-violent offenders.

A representative for the union for jail officers was not immediately available for comment.

Complaints have been expensive for the county - the lawsuit noted that in the last three years the county has approved settlements totaling $9 million in damages over complaints of civil rights abuses at the prison.

The lawsuit cited instances of officers beating shackled men until they lost consciousness, and then subjecting them to further abuse, such as banging their heads on steel doors.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the county over conditions at the jail, and reached a consent decree requiring the county to provide prisoners with reasonably safe conditions, according to court documents.

Thursday's lawsuit contends that "little has changed" since 2010.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)