‘The Squeeze’ brings viewers inside Cook County Jail, onto Chicago’s streets

By Chris McNamara (Chicago Tribune)
December 30, 2009


Throughout its 80-year history, Cook County Jail has been a place of mystery, its inner workings shielded from the public and the media. Occasional stories, like one in the days before Christmas about an inmate dying after suffering a 106-degree temperature, are almost always negative. Some of that veil will be lifted Friday with the debut of a television series that examines the inner workings of the jail, the largest single-site county facility in the United States, and profiles the people who work and do time there.

MSNBC’s “The Squeeze” takes cameras inside the jail, a feat made possible, those involved would have you believe, by a sheriff who advocates openness.

“I think (Cook Country Sheriff) Tom Dart is somebody who believes in transparent government,” said Melissa Cutlip, vice president of development with local production house 20 West, which created the series. “Under the prior sheriff there was limited — if any — media access. Dart took over and revisited policy. He’s letting the taxpayers know what they’re paying for at Cook County Jail.”

Dart’s spokesman, Steve Patterson, said something similar.

“When he came on, the sheriff wanted to open the doors in ways that hadn’t been done before. This is a way to show the taxpayers and county commissioners and the nation what the Cook County Sheriff’s Department does,” Patterson said.

As for it also being a good vehicle to raise Dart’s national profile, Patterson said the sheriff is only in one scene in the first batch of shows.

“This isn’t the Sheriff Dart show. It’s the Sheriff’s Department show,” Patterson said.

“The Squeeze” isn’t intended as a fluff piece on cops or some audio-visual tour of the jail, located in the Little Village neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side. It’s a gritty examination of the process of extracting information from inmates and employing that intelligence on the street. Central players in these hourlong documentaries are members of the sheriff’s Criminal Intelligence Unit and officers assigned to the Gang Unit.

“The CIU works out of the jail, identifying gang members,” said Lt. John Blair, who appears on the show. “When [inmates] find out about something on the street, they reach out to us.”

Blair believes the appeal of “The Squeeze” is the concept of intelligence gathering — a practice that, for most viewers, isn’t well understood.

“We’re not just working gangs on the street,” said the 15-year veteran. “We’re multitasking.”

In the first episode, Criminal Intelligence Unit officers greet inmates arriving at what they call “Crook County Jail.” Some of the shackled recognize their handlers from previous incarcerations. The officers then start meeting with gang members, first-timers and jail veterans — all presumed innocent until proven guilty, all potential sources of information that can help quell violence within the jail and on the streets.

The show exercises care, Cutlip said.

“We take the safety of the jail staff into account, along with the rights of those in jail and the confidentiality of informants. Those are serious things that we don’t want to compromise,” she said.

Unless inmates sign releases to appear in the program, their faces are blurred. Supervisors with the Criminal Intelligence Unit review all footage to ensure this policy is enforced. But beyond that jail staff has no input on what gets included in “The Squeeze,” Cutlip said. Patterson said a contract with 20 West includes a clause that holds the production company liable should any lawsuits be filed over the show.

The Naperville Police Department is being sued in federal court by people who claim they did not give permission to appear on a reality television show focused on that department.

Cutlip estimates that 70 hours of footage is whittled down to create each 46-minute episode. “The goal here is to show how this operation works — intelligence from jail is shared with the Sheriff’s Department, and they do the investigation. This is not a process that we can produce. It’s a verite documentary.”

While it’s unfair to pick out a star of a reality show about guys merely doing their jobs, Criminal Intelligence Unit investigator Adrian Sandoval, 38, shines. Called “The Sandman” by inmates, he wears a white leather jacket as he trolls through the bowels of Cook County Jail, knocking fists and chatting with inmates, determining who will be willing to exchange intelligence for a possible recommendation for leniency from the state’s attorney.

“A lot of people only get to see the negativity here,” Sandoval said. “We agreed to participate with MSNBC because we want people to know exactly what we do. We’re gathering information to make this institution safer.”

While the bulk of the program takes place inside the jail, the cameras follow officers as they take advantage of information gleaned from inmates. In the first episode, they find a weapon hidden beneath couches in a littered alley, exactly where an informant told them to look. They barge into houses to serve warrants.

“I’ve filmed about 25 warrants being served and I’ve gotten used to it — the guns out, the doors being slammed in. But I’m still scared every time,” said director of photography Joe Fitzgerald, who holds a camera over cops’ shoulders. A veteran of reality television shows, the Logan Square cameraman gets patted down when entering restricted sections of the jail and wears a bulletproof vest on the streets.

The program depicts the care that is taken to protect inmates who provide intelligence. Interview sessions are often clandestine. Inmates even call the officers’ cells phones from within the jail.

“We can get up-to-the-minute information,” said Sandoval, who began working at the jail in 1995 as a correctional officer before transferring to the SWAT team, and ultimately helping found the Gang Intelligence Unit, which recently was renamed the Criminal Intelligence Unit.

When asked about the effectiveness of this unit, Sandoval describes an incident in the summer of 2008, when an inmate awaiting trial for a narcotics charge provided details about a homicide on the North Side. That led to convictions for murder.

“The show lets us tell our side of the story,” Sandoval said. “They get to see a perception of us other than what they see in the media. We want people to know that we’re regular human beings and that this is our career.”

His job involves taking cell-phone calls at all hours — an inmate has a tip about a weapons cache within a cell, a gang member has word about a pending assault.

Sometimes the calls are social. “Some of these guys see me as a close friend. I treat them all with respect, until they deem otherwise,” said Sandoval, who once was attacked by a group of Gangster Disciples in the jail. He suffered head trauma and an arm laceration. “One guy called me yesterday saying thanks for making his life easier. He was spending his first Christmas with his kids. I told him just to stay home. You can’t get in trouble if you stay home. Unless you get into a domestic situation …”

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