LITTLE VILLAGE — A viral photo of inmates clearing snow outside of the Cook County Jail sparked anger on social media Monday from people who said the men were not properly dressed for the weather — but the sheriff’s office said these claims are off base.
“They got the inmates cleaning no real winter gear,” the photo caption said.
By Monday afternoon, the photo had been shared more than 4,700 times and garnered more than 850 comments.
Manuel Diaz, who lives in Cicero, submitted the photo to the popular Little Village Facebook page after getting permission from a friend who posted the photo to Instagram.
“I was getting ready for my morning commute, it’s cold, I saw it on my Instagram story and it made me mad,” Diaz said.
“I know a lot of people who have unfortunately had to do time in the county jail,” Diaz said. “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. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, it doesn’t matter if you’re working a job, or in prison. … You shouldn’t be made to shovel snow if you aren’t being treated right.”
Though the picture was not completely clear, Diaz said the men did not appear to be wearing gloves or warm enough clothes.
“They have a big enough staff and budget that they shouldn’t rely on inmates to clean snow,” Diaz said.
Early Monday afternoon, the Chicago Bond Fund shared the photo on their Facebook page calling the Sheriff’s Department to provide more details on the circumstances of the photo.
Sharing the photo prompted an important “conversation about the wellbeing of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail,” Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, told Block Club Chicago.
But Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, said the photo caption did not tell the full story.
The men photographed Monday are part of the county’s Renew Program, where inmates are paid to learn job skills, such as demolishing abandoned homes, Smith said.
She added that the workers were wearing boots, hats, gloves and “highly insulated jumpsuits used during extreme weather.”
“They also rotate in and out of a warming van,” Smith said.
Smith did not answer questions about how much the inmate workers made as part of the Renew program.
She said the viral nature of the photo was unfortunate, because it was spreading inaccuracies about how the sheriff’s department operates.
“I would have much preferred that organizations like the Chicago Community Bond Fund, who I work with regularly, to have called me up … before suggesting false information,” Smith said. “However that photo looks, we are not those people.”
Grace said there needs to be clear — and public — policies and oversight to ensure people in jail are being treated and paid fairly for their work.
“For us, it’s a public conversation, not a private back and forth [between the Sheriff’s Department]…on how we, as Cook County residents want to see our tax dollars used,” Grace said. “We know often times that people who are in jail want work opportunities but it’s important that we don’t abuse that desire for very limited opportunity to engage that incarcerated people have.”
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