‘Real people with real needs’

July 7, 2018 GMT

KANKAKEE — The inmates of the Kankakee County jail know who the sheriff is. Or at least it seemed that way during a recent tour.

Late last month, Sheriff Mike Downey gave a Daily Journal reporter a tour of the Jerome Combs Detention Center. It’s one of two county jails, the other being in downtown Kankakee. About two-thirds of the inmates are at Jerome Combs.

As he showed the 13-year-old facility, Downey noted there were no bars. Its pods are connected by brightly lit hallways.

Downey said he has no problem giving jail tours, saying he wanted people to know inmates are treated well. He’s brought U.S. senators and congressmen, among others, into the lockup.

On the day the reporter visited, the jail held about 140 detainees from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

As with the other pods, the immigrant detainees could be seen through large windows, with jailers looking on. One man was reading on his bunk. Others were playing cards. Another was on the jail phone. A microwave was available.

Unlike the areas of the jail with local inmates, the TVs in the immigrant sections were turned to the World Cup, the world’s most-watched athletic competition (although not in the United States).

“They don’t move when they’re watching the World Cup, especially when Mexico plays,” a jailer said.

Downey, the sheriff since 2016, took the reporter into a minimum-security area for local inmates. A series of phones lined one wall, all being used by inmates. On the other side, an inmate was cutting another’s hair with an electric cutter. Another man had dozens of books under his bed.

Shortly after the sheriff walked in, inmates approached him to discuss their issues. One man talked about a paperwork problem; another mentioned an email to his attorney.

Downey, who joined the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Department in 2005, listened to each inmate who spoke with him. One man said his mattress was too thin, spreading his fingers to demonstrate that it was an inch thick.

The man said it was uncomfortable, calling himself a “big dude.”

Downey and the man walked over to the mattress, where the sheriff inspected it. It appeared to be at least two or three inches thick. The sheriff said it was fine.

Another man walked up to say the pod needed a new basketball. Downey asked where it was. It was stuck in the basketball net. The sheriff jumped up to tap the ball, causing it to fall down. The ball had seen better days, an outside coating peeling off.

Downey went to a storage room to get a new basketball. He found a volleyball, but not a basketball. The jail, which has a number of rooms for basketball, was all out, so he asked an employee to order new ones.

Downey said many of the inmates know him because they spent time in the jail when he was its top official a few years ago.

He said it’s important to understand that the inmates in the jail are awaiting trial and have not yet been found guilty for the crimes for which they are charged.

“These are real people with real needs,” he said.