By Christopher Hacker and Suzanne Le Mignot
It’s a scene that happens every weekday at the Cook County Jail: a bus transports a group of inmates, all handcuffed, to court in the Chicago suburbs.
Most of those trips are uneventful; detainees are brought to their hearings and return to jail without incident. But in some cases, those buses ignite the kinds of violence the jail is designed to prevent.
The jail transported inmates on buses with other detainees, despite those inmates’ histories of fights while locked up, according to data obtained by CBS 2 through a public records request. Many of the inmates started fights on those buses, despite policies that could’ve required the jail to transport them separately.
One of those inmates was Givontae Surratt.
Surratt was first locked up in August 2016 on a burglary charge. But while out on bail, prosecutors said he committed a string of armed robberies. That landed him back behind bars.
After that, he was involved in at least 15 fights in the jail.
A History of Jail Violence
In his first incident, after just a month behind bars, he was involved in a six-person brawl; officers had to use pepper spray to break up the fight.
A month later, Surratt threw urine on another inmate. The next month, he was in three more fights — one left the victim unconscious and with a trip to the emergency room, according to jail records.
Despite this history, in February 2018 — a year into his time in the jail — Surratt was placed on a bus to a hearing at the 51st Street court building in Chicago. A few minutes into the trip, Surratt escaped his restraints and threatened to use the steel lock and chain as a weapon, records show.
Around that time, Surratt was also involved in the first of three incidents in which he allegedly masturbated in front of two correctional officers and, in one case, an attorney at a court building, jail records show. He’s been charged in at least two of those cases, according to court records.
Months later, in July 2018, Surratt got into another fight in which he “could be seen coming up behind and lifting and carrying [the victim] … to the shower area,” according to a jail incident report. Surratt claimed they were “horse-playing”, but that inmate was later seen with an eye injury, the report said.
In September 2018, Surratt was seen on a jail bus video hitting an inmate 21 times with a lock and chain — his second fight on a bus. That inmate later sued the county for failing to protect him; the case is still pending.
Over the next year, Surratt was involved in another four fights — two of them on buses, the data shows.
According to jail policy, inmates with histories of violence behind bars can be transported under increased security — a policy known as “high-risk movement,” which could require separate transportation to court.
But that policy wasn’t used with Surratt, despite his violent history inside the jail.
And Surratt isn’t the only one. The data analyzed by CBS 2 shows 18 inmates were in at least three fights in the jail before getting into fights on buses — buses they would never have been on had the jail used its “high-risk movement” protocols.
And, the data showed, there are eight inmates in addition to Surratt who were involved in multiple fights on jail buses. In one case, an inmate who’d been in 17 previous fights attacked another inmate on a bus; his victim wound up in the emergency room.
These inmates have been in fights on jail buses multiple times since 2014, despite policies that could’ve kept them separate from others during transportation.
While it’s impossible for the jail to prevent all incidents, inmates who have gotten into fights on buses shouldn’t be transported with other inmates again, according to Jeffrey Schwartz, a California-based corrections expert who has worked on reforms at some of the largest jails in the country.
Instead of putting them with other inmates, Schwartz said, “you would have a driver of the van and you would have a second officer at least, who is in the van, in a secure position, watching that one inmate.”
That wasn’t the case in Cook County, where, in August 2018, 22-year-old Kimonte Cadge was attacked on a bus from a hearing at a suburban courthouse.
“That was the first time I ever got jumped on like that,” Cadge said. “I couldn’t even do nothing.”
Like many victims of fights on jail buses, Cadge was still cuffed when he was repeatedly hit in the face with steel handcuffs by another inmate who had escaped his restraints.
That attacker, who is now serving a 20-year sentence for attempted murder, had already assaulted another inmate in a similar incident on a bus — one of eight fights he’d been in before he attacked Cadge.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, told us there are between 70 and 100 “high-risk movement” individuals in the jail at any time, each of whom require additional resources to transport. The jail houses a total of about 5,700 total people, records show.
The statement said while “security decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, based on the totality of circumstances and the condition of the detainee,” the jail decided to place Surratt on high-risk movement after CBS 2 started asking questions.
CBS 2 sent Surratt a letter in jail asking for comment; he replied, telling us to communicate through a relative of his. That relative later stopped returning our calls, and we were unable to get in touch with Surratt again.
“The Manpower is Unbelievable”
Each time an inmate is attacked in jail, it’s taxpayers who foot the bill for their injuries and lawsuits against the county. Last year, the jail spent nearly $90 million on medical care for inmates. CBS 2 asked the Sheriff’s Office how much of that involved injuries from fights during transport, but they told us they don’t track that.
What they do track is how much they spend taking inmates to court. In 2017, the Sheriff’s Office proposed switching to video conferencing for routine status hearings — the kind Surratt and other inmates were being taken to when they started fights on buses. They argued that would save taxpayers more than $2.5 million every year.
“The manpower is unbelievable for that short 20 second court appearance,” said former prosecutor and CBS 2 Legal Analyst Irv Miller.
Miller said when he was prosecutor, inmates often stayed in jail for bond hearings — the kind where judges decide whether to release someone before their trial. Instead of being physically transported to court, Miller said, they sat in front of a camera in the jail and appeared in court on a screen.
“There was no problem with it,” Miller said. “I had many cases where that was done. The inmate was able to see the judge. The judge was able to see the inmate.”
In addition to cost, the Sheriff’s spokesperson argued video court appearances would prevent these kinds of incidents by keeping inmates inside the jail, where they’re more secure.
And they’ve been asking for video hearings for years, the spokesperson said.
In 2013, at a Cook County Finance Committee hearing, representatives from the Sheriff’s Office argued video hearings would save money and keep inmates safe. Five years later, in 2017, they asked again, saying in a letter to then-Cook County Board Chairman John Daley that it would save money and “eliminate unnecessary disruptions in detainees’ lives” by preventing them from having to travel to and from court.
And video conferencing is still common practice for bond hearings in Kane, Lake and DuPage counties, along with numerous counties across the country.
So what happened to the proposal to use video conferencing in Cook County courts?
A Matter of Human Rights
“It is unconstitutional,” said Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli, who oversees the office that provides free legal services to defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. “I do believe it is unfair; it dehumanizes my clients.”
“The victim could be in court, in the seats,” Campanelli said. “Police could be in court. The victim’s family. Perhaps the client’s family is there. But no client is standing before the judge? The client is on a screen?”
Campanelli argues video conferencing makes it harder for judges to ask defendants questions and gauge their mental and physical state, and can even delay the negotiation of plea agreements, which is often done after a hearing.
And she isn’t alone. In 2008, a researcher at Northwestern University published the results of a study that found that bond amounts — money someone has to pay to be released pending trial — were about 50 percent higher in Cook County when video conferencing was used. Bonds for some crimes, such as possession of a stolen vehicle or burglary, more than doubled on average when video appearances were used.
In other words, appearing in court via video “led to a large and abrupt increase in the bond levels set in felony cases,” and can keep defendants in jail longer, the study said.
One of the study’s authors sued the county, arguing video court appearances violated defendants’ constitutional rights. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed after the Chief Judge in Cook County, Timothy Evans, ordered the court to stop allowing video appearances.
Still, the Sheriff’s Office has continued pushing for video hearings. After they again asked for video appearances to be reinstated in October 2017, Evans told the Cook County Finance Committee it wasn’t going to happen.
“I always wanted my clients to have every right that a citizen would have,” Evans told the committee. “And to say that my client had to have a case coming up and he had to sit in jail while his liberty was under discussion, to me that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow.”
The day before that meeting, Campanelli told the same committee that video court appearances were “unconstitutional and a violation of the sixth amendment.” State’s Attorney Kim Foxx also told that committee it was unconstitutional.
“The most important thing is the client wants to be in court,” Campanelli said. “The client has a right to be in court every court date. There is no court date that is not important for a client.”
Campanelli said she feels strongly that other counties are wrong for allowing video hearings.
“I would say ‘shame on them,'” Campanelli said of the counties near Chicago that use video hearings. “Shame on everybody who’s working in those court systems in Lake, Kane and DuPage … because they’re violating their clients’ rights.”
That doesn’t change things for the Sheriff’s office, which transports an average of 385 detainees to and from court every weekday.
“It is inherently risky to rouse hundreds of detainees from sleep before dawn, usher them onto buses and drive them to courthouses spread across Cook County,” the Sheriff’s spokesperson said in an email statement to CBS 2.
“Even if the defendant has a lengthy history of assaulting others in custody, the Sheriff’s Office still has to transport the person to outlying courthouses – even if it is only for a 30 second, routine status hearing,” the statement said.
Ultimately, the decision to allow video conferencing is up to Evans, who told CBS 2 in a statement,”the issue raised by CBS Chicago is a security matter, and improved security is the solution” — although Evans expects video conferencing will be discussed “in the near future,” the statement said.
Campanelli isn’t buying it. She argued the real issue is security inside the jail.
“Fix the restraints,” Campanelli said. “Get better restraints. Get better training for the [correctional officers]. I’m not here to tell the Sheriff how to do his job, but why is he pointing the finger at the court system, when his only job is to transport the clients?”