Researching the Cook County Jail in 2013, I discovered the Inmate Locator webpage, where, with any single letter of the alphabet entered into the last name search box, one could look up all current inmates (over 13,000) and access detailed information about them, including booking photos. Ostensibly, the pictures were there to facilitate contact between detainees and loved ones, but since name and birthdate should suffice to establish identity, their purpose was questionable, particularly when most detainees haven’t been convicted, but are merely awaiting trial. There was no language on the site regarding the innocence of unsentenced inmates.
Believing the easy availability of the images (and other inmate information) to be emblematic of a system in need of reform, I felt compelled to share them, but didn’t want to perpetuate what I saw as an injustice. Accordingly, in the fall of 2013, I began contacting inmates by mail and asking for permission to use their images.
I simultaneously began contacting the sheriff and his staff and asking them to modify their website. Both efforts continued into the spring of 2014, when, after many emails and phone calls, I was able to persuade jail authorities to change the Inmate Locator, making it harder to access inmate information.
In all, 82 letters were sent to inmates. 6 responses were received, 5 in the affirmative and 1 in the negative, 54 letters came back ‘return to sender’ and the rest are still out there.
In January 2014, the words, “Sheriff Dart reminds the public that the unsentenced inmates are presumed innocent until proven guilty by the government in a court of law,” were added to the Inmate Locator. In April 2014, the search function was altered. It now requires the full first and last name of the inmate to be entered before any information can be accessed.