Cook County jail cracks down on paper after defense attorneys carried drug-laced documents to inmate meetings, officials say

CHICAGO — The sheriff’s office this week enacted new rules to fight the smuggling of drug-laced papers into the Cook County jail after investigators found two private defense attorneys bringing contaminated papers into the facility for client meetings, officials said.

Incoming mail has been scrutinized at the jail for years, and, as of Tuesday, defense attorneys who want to take paperwork to client meetings must schedule an appointment so the documents can be inspected. Correctional workers and county employees are also barred from taking paper into the jail unless it is work- or union-related.

Investigations of the private defense lawyers who allegedly brought contaminated papers into the facility remain active.

“The new rules have been discussed with relevant criminal justice offices, including the Office of the Public Defender, to avoid limiting their ability to represent their clients while addressing the dangers presented by saturated paper,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement Thursday. Attorneys and clients can still review documents electronically on computers.

“Jail policies and procedures must adapt, as they always have, to the ever-evolving ways in which individuals attempt to introduce dangerous contraband,” the statement continued.

Inmate mail screening is seen in photos from Jessamine County (KY) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Tuesday’s announcement came three days after a 25-year-old detainee died inside Division XI, a medium-security unit. Yesterday, a 35-year-old female inmate died in another wing of the jail, according to the medical examiner’s office. They are the eighth and ninth inmate deaths at the jail this year, numbers that rival recent full-year totals.

Some jail employees believe illicit drugs are driving the death rate up, but the sheriff’s office called that irresponsible speculation when CWBChicago reported on an unusual spike in cases earlier this year.

In fact, the medical examiner has determined the cause and manner of death in only one of this year’s cases, the March 2 beating death of 28-year-old Marvell Reasoner. Prosecutors charged his cellmate with murder. One inmate who died in January was 79 years old. A source said another detainee who died was known to have significant health issues.

In its statement on Thursday, the sheriff’s office acknowledged that the jail “has experienced a concerning rise in the discovery of such contraband and the significant harm it can cause.”

“Jails and prisons across the country have experienced a rise in opioid overdoses, emanating in part from an increase in the use of paper saturated with illegal narcotics or non-illegal substances such as rat poison, bug killer, and other substances smuggled into the correctional facilities,” the statement continued.

In January, a source familiar with the jail’s operations told CWBChicago, “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.”

Some inmates “are making a lot of money from the paper,” usually receiving payments via CashApp or their inmate trust fund, the source said.

A 34-year-old woman was charged with drug possession in January after she allegedly met with an undercover sheriff’s police investigator and agreed to take an envelope of narcotics into the jail.

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.

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com