Cook County Jail’s security, healthcare and living conditions violate the inmates’ constitutional rights, according to a recently concluded investigation by the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago.

The 17-month probe alleges that jail staff abused inmates; that inmates lacked adequate healthcare; and that living conditions, including fire safety and sanitation, were not up to par. The jail could face a civil suit if conditions do not improve.

“There are certain minimum conditions that a jail has to comply with so that it doesn’t offend the constitution,” said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, July 10, at a press conference downtown at the Dirksen Federal Building. “It appears pretty clear that the Cook County Jail fell well short of those constitutional conditions.”

According to a letter delivered to Cook County Board President Todd H. Stroger and Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart by Fitzgerald, there exists a “culture of [officers] abusing inmates” at the jail. According to the letter, officers often gang up on inmates, meting out beatings for offenses such as cussing, arguing and refusing to follow instructions.

The letter cites one instance in which a mentally ill inmate exposed himself to a female officer. The man was taken into a clothing room, restrained and beaten by a group of officers, the letter stated.

While Fitzgerald said he does not condone inmates insulting officers, he also condemned the abuse of inmates.

“The response is not to engage in beatings of inmates- certainly not organized beatings-and not beatings that end up with inmates being hospitalized,” he said.

Knife fights and other forms of violence are not uncommon in prison, including in Cook County. Over the course of one week in March of this year, 35 fights broke out, according to the Justice Department.

Violence is not the only factor contributing to the inmates’ plight. During the first four months of 2008, the department reports that three inmates committed suicide because of inadequate mental health care. The Justice Department also criticized the inmates’ physical care, reporting amputations and infections resulting from inattention and staffing limitations.

Fitzgerald noted that the jail only has one dentist for more than 9,500 inmates. The dentist can only perform extractions-more than 25 percent of which have resulted in infection.

Other complaints include electrical issues, such as exposed wiring, faulty plumbing, unsanitary food service and general uncleanliness.

If conditions do not improve after 49 days, the United States can file a lawsuit that would force the jail to take action, according to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1997. Fitzgerald, however, seemed confident that the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Cook County Board would comply.

“Every indication we’ve seen from them is that they recognize what the problem is,” he said.