COOK COUNTY, Ill. — Assured that inmates would be nonviolent and closely supervised, Chicago aldermen signed off Wednesday on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to put Cook County Jail detainees to work at the city pound to improve conditions for animals and reduce taxpayer-funded overtime.
Sixteen volunteer inmates — most convicted of driving on suspended licenses — will be assigned to clean dog kennels and feed and water dogs at the David R. Lee Animal Center, 2741 S. Western.
The city pound has a daily population of 500 dogs and cats. It doesn't have enough volunteers to provide the level of care that animals deserve, said Cherie Travis, the city's executive director of Animal Care and Control.
"We face staffing shortages on a daily basis...We had no one to come in...from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Christmas Day to clean and take care of the animals," Travis said, noting that her department racked up $300,000 in overtime last year.
"This is an outstanding opportunity to bring 16 people in every morning, better utilize staff to perform other functions and provide a far better level of care for the animals, which is all of our goals," she said.
The one-year agreement — with five one-year renewal options — calls for the inmates to do the work from 8 a.m. to noon, 365 days a year.
In exchange, the city will pay the sheriff's office $231,059 a year, with an annual increase of 5 percent to reimburse the sheriff for the cost of administering the program.
Marty Stack, an attorney for the sheriff's office, assured the City Council's Workforce Development Committee that volunteer inmates would be securely transported and closely watched.
"Inmates would be searched prior to getting into the van, searched getting out of the van. There would, of course, be an inmate count to make sure everybody's there. A chase car will follow the van. While they were in the facility, they would be supervised by two correctional officers. Then, on the way out, they would be searched, placed back in the van and brought back to jail," he said.
With those assurances, aldermen had no qualms. In fact, they were all for the idea.
"This is a great idea to provide real training opportunities for people while they're incarcerated," said Ald. Will Burns (4th).
"If we don't do this, and you're short of staff, the dogs don't get walked. They don't get washed," said Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd).
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) called the partnership with the sheriff's office a "fantastic idea."
"It's a shame we're just getting to it now," he said. "We've got to get creative in getting out of this budget situation. Providing folks with some job skills and some discipline is a good thing while also providing some relief for taxpayers."
The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month that the inmate volunteer program was an outgrowth of former Mayor Richard M. Daley's failed attempt to privatize the cleaning and feeding of animals at the city pound.
City Hall issued a "request for proposals," but received no responses, prompting Travis to look for help to the County Jail just six blocks away.
Why not let the inmates have direct contact with animals?
"It's for the safety of the inmates and the animals. These people have not been screened necessarily in animal handling. We don't want a dog getting loose," Travis said.
"This way, they are cleaning the cages and taking care of the animals, but not actually having animal contact. If we were to do that, we would have to have a different screening process."