Chicago — Five inmates, including two accused murderers, have died at the Cook County jail since late last month, but opinions about whether the spike is an anomaly or a symptom of something more troubling depend on who you talk to.
The jail had seven deaths for all of last year, which is generally in line with pre-COVID years, according to medical examiner records.
While the causes and manners of death in this year’s cases are still unknown, some jail employees believe illicit drugs, likely smuggled into the facility through inmate mail, are driving the death rate up. The sheriff’s office calls that irresponsible speculation.
Two inmates who died recently were awaiting trial on murder charges: Thomas Diskin on January 29 and Eric Gunn on February 9. Neither man showed any signs of trauma, according to a source.
Diskin, 57, suffered from severe mental health conditions. He allegedly murdered his next-door neighbor with a hammer, telling investigators that “it’s pretty scary to kill Satan.”
Gunn, 23, stood accused of killing a 15-year-old boy in Lincoln Square during a marijuana deal rip-off.
Between those deaths, around 7:30 p.m. on February 1, three inmates were transported to hospitals for possible drug overdoses. They all survived, but the timing has fueled internal speculation about the unusual number of in-custody deaths.
“The number of overdoses occurring is alarming,” a source within the sheriff’s office said last week. “This has been an ongoing issue for years.”
But it’s too soon to conclude that drug use is fueling the spike in deaths, the sheriff’s office says.
“The causes of death for both Eric Gunn and Thomas Diskin has not yet been determined by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office,” the sheriff’s office said in a written statement Friday. “The Medical Examiner’s Office is the agency that determines cause and manner of death, and it would be premature and irresponsible to speculate about the cause of death until they issue their ruling. There were no signs of foul play.”
Both deaths are being investigated by the Illinois State Police Public Integrity Task Force, the sheriff’s office said.
Details about the other three in-custody deaths this year suggest illicit drug smuggling may not be a factor.
Most recently, a 28-year-old man died Saturday morning, one day after arriving at the jail on an outstanding warrant, according to records reviewed by CWB Chicago. A source said he might have been detoxing after arriving at the jail under the influence of substances.
The death of 79-year-old Joseph Minarik on January 29 may be age-related, another source suggested. He had been in custody since November 2017 on charges of sexually assaulting underage boys and creating child pornography.
Kamaron Charles, 34, arrested by Chicago police on January 25 for shoplifting and an outstanding warrant, did not appear at his bail hearing the next day because, a sheriff’s deputy told the judge, he had a medical issue. Charles died one day later. Without providing details, a source familiar with the situation said jail officials do not believe his death was drug-related.
Of last year’s seven in-custody deaths, two were by suicide, according to medical examiner’s office records. Another inmate was murdered, and one died of natural causes. Two died from fentanyl overdoes that they suffered on July 21 and 22. One case, the August 13 death of 30-year-old Deon Lee, remains under investigation.
The sheriff’s office told the Sun-Times last year that Lee had “several medical conditions.”
Inside the jail, though, some employees believe overdoses are driving up in-custody deaths. But the substances involved may not be typical street drugs like heroin.
Multiple sources said one of the biggest problems is intoxicant-soaked paper that works its way into the jail through inmate mail. Smugglers also use so-called “legal mail,” which supposedly contains confidential legal correspondence, to get infused papers into the jail.
“They have been spraying everything on the paper. Roach spray is one of the things that has been mentioned,” said a source. Paper laced with synthetic marijuana is also common.
“There is big money involved in the saturated paper. The paper that gets through is broken down into strips that are sold for $10 to $50, and those strips are smoked and ingested. There are documented incidents in which the ingestion has induced vomiting and seizures,” said the source.
Some inmates “are making a lot of money from the paper,” usually receiving payments via CashApp or their inmate trust fund, said a jail employee.
Routine post-mortem toxicology tests may miss some of the intoxicants because they aren’t commonly consumed outside the jail walls, according to the source.
Inside the jail, posters warn inmates about the illegality and dangers of the drugs.
“There is always the risk of overdose because of how potent synthetic narcotics are and what substances are cut with, including soaked paper,” one sign reads.
“Please understand that this may cost you your life,” the warning concludes.
Jail employees familiar with the smuggling operations said they have proposed keeping contraband out by providing inmates with photocopies or digitizing mail. Even if adopted, those solutions could take years to implement.
In Kansas, the Shawnee County Department of Corrections began digitizing its inmate mail in February 2020.
“We [were] seeing anything from heroin, K2, any type of synthetic drug, opioids, fentanyl, all those kind of things that are being liquefied and they’re soaking paper in it, then they mail it in,” Corrections Department Director Brian Cole told WIBW at the time.
Nationally, local jail deaths tied to drug and alcohol intoxication hit a 20-year high in 2019, according to the latest Mortality in Local Jails report from the Office of Justice Programs.