A viral photo of inmates shoveling snow outside a Chicago jail sparked social media outrage this week as the city deals with record-breaking low temperatures that have already killed people.
“La Villita, Chicago,” a Facebook page for the city’s Little Village neighborhood, posted a photo Monday that appears to have originated from Snapchat. The photo shows several inmates in orange jumpsuits clearing snow in front of the Cook County Jail, the country’s largest single-site jail, with the caption, “They got the inmates cleaning with no real winter gear.”
The photo caught the eye of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which works to promote criminal justice reform. The group tweeted the photo on Monday, expressing alarm that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart “appears to have incarcerated people shoveling snow without proper winter weather attire.”
Monday’s average temperature in Chicago was just a couple of degrees above freezing, but the city was preparing for double-digit subzero temperatures on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has issued a disaster proclamation ahead of the polar vortex, saying the lows could be historic.
The National Weather Service says the actual temperature could reach 27 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in northern Illinois, with wind chill factors as low as minus 55, a life-threatening level. There have been 19 cold-related deaths in Chicago since Oct. 30, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
So why do Cook County inmates appear to be clearing snow without jackets on? Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cara Smith told HuffPost that the photo mischaracterizes the situation and that the Chicago Community Bond Fund should not have shared it without contacting her.
Smith said the men in Monday’s photo are part of Renew, the county’s vocational program in which inmates are paid to learn skills that could help them get a job. The program selects work projects in distressed communities, and some of the program’s inmates were happy to help clear the snow Monday during a staff shortage, she said.
The inmates in the photo were wearing “highly-insulated jumpsuits, gloves, mittens and insulated boots,” Smith said, adding that the men also rotated in and out of warming vans every 20 minutes.
“We take full responsibility,” she said. “We haven’t lost our minds.”
Smith said the program does not let the men work outside once it gets below 20 degrees, meaning inmates will not clear snow during the polar vortex’s deep freeze.
Dart has labeled himself a reformer and has talked about reducing the jail population and implemented programs to teach inmates cooking, art and anger management. But a Marshall Project report in October detailed the jail’s horrible conditions and dehumanization of inmates.
“Inmates were intimidated into [not] taking coats while released into the cold weather,” tweeted University of Delaware associate professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, author of the Marshall Project report. “EM [electronic monitoring] inmates were driven in vans around the city with no bathroom breaks, food, or coats.”
Manuel Diaz told Block Club Chicago he submitted the photo to the Little Village Facebook page out of concern for the inmates.
“I know a lot of people who have unfortunately had to do time in the county jail,” Diaz told them. “There’s a lot of circumstances that puts people in these situations, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated less than human. … They have a big enough staff and budget that they shouldn’t rely on inmates to clear snow.”