Last summer, when a federal report detailed substandard conditions at Cook County Jail, sheriff Tom Dart was furious. Dart, who oversees the jail, argued that the report distorted some of the facility’s ongoing problems, including health services that his office wasn’t responsible for, and that it didn’t note improvements made since he’d taken over at the end of 2006.

“For them to do what they did was just a horrible publicity stunt,” he told me recently. “We do have our issues”—such as the cramped space where inmates are moved in and out of bond court, which Dart called “ghastly.”

“But I say to everybody: come on down here and tell me if there’s something we can do differently or better. . . . If you see something we’re doing wrong, we need to know about it.”

The conventional wisdom is that striding into the sheriff’s office with a reform agenda is a great political move—as long as you do it fast and then get out before the next ugly scandal comes to light and reveals just how deep the problems there are.  

Over the last few months Dart has convinced quite a few of us that he might actually believe in that reform stuff, establishing himself as a law enforcement populist with his own talent for generating publicity. “We have to get the word out about the good stuff we do,” he said. “People tell me this job is an albatross, but that’s only true if you’re trying to move up the pecking order and get a new position. There’s a lot of untapped potential here.”

He wasn’t talking about the kind of untapped potential that emerged Monday, when a federal judge ruled in favor of former county inmates claiming their rights were violated when they had to submit to unnecessary, invasive, and unsanitary strip searches while being booked. (To read a PDF of the ruling, click here.)

It was just the latest federal ruling slamming the jail’s old strip search policy, which the former inmates  described in horrifying detail. Some said they were exposed to other people’s vomit and blood while they were being stripped. Women often had to undergo vaginal examinations without explanation; men were sometimes lined up side by side and asked to spread their buttocks. Numerous inmates said guards uttered racial slurs and commented on the appearance of their genitals.

Many of the former inmates who filed the lawsuit were in jail for misdemeanor crimes like driving violations.

Here’s an account from one of the earlier court filings by the inmates’ attorney, Michael Kanovitz of Loevy & Loevy:

On the evening of January 13, 2005, Plaintiff [Kim] YOUNG was driving to her cousin’s house in Chicago for a funeral. Her daughter, sister and granddaughters were in the car with her.

Police arrested her on a warrant that was issued after Plaintiff YOUNG had failed to appear on a traffic ticket.

The police took her to the [jail] where she was processed in accordance with the jail’s usual procedures. Ms. Young participated in the intake with approximately 30 other women.

First, the women were placed in a line and serially taken behind a partition. When Ms. Young’s turn came, she was ordered to remove all of her clothes and underwear, and was told to squat down in front of a guard. The guard then told her to cough. Ms. Young complied with all of the guard’s instructions. She was required to repeat this procedure three times before being allowed to dress again.

Later, the approximately 30 women were led to a hallway lined with chairs, where they were ordered to sit and wait. Periodically, a woman emerged from a room off the hallway to call numbers assigned to the detainees. When their numbers were called, the detainees were made to enter the room.

When the woman called Ms. Young’s number, she entered the room and was told to sit at one of three tables. A woman, who was dressed in street clothes drew two tubes of blood from Ms. Young’s arm. When Young asked the woman why her blood was being taken, the woman did not respond.

Ms. Young was then sent to sit in the hallway again. Approximately twenty minutes later, she was called back into the room, but this time she was led behind a partition. A woman ordered Young to remove her clothes again saying, “We’re going to examine you.” When Young asked what she was being examined for, the woman responded, “Just get on the table.”

Young protested, telling the woman that she expected to be bonded out of the jail soon. Ms. Young was ordered to climb on to the examining table and place her feet in stirrups.

The woman proceeded to perform a vaginal swab on Ms. Young which included inserting a speculum and other probes into Ms. Young’s vaginal cavity. Ms. Young was never given any paper to read or sign before any of these procedures were performed on her, nor was she asked any questions about her medical status or history.

Attorneys for the sheriff’s office argued that the searches were necessary to maintain security, since even inmates facing misdemeanor charges have smuggled in weapons and contraband. But district judge Matthew F. Kennelly wrote that jail officials failed to show that everyone had to be searched this way: “Strip searches were conducted without regard to the seriousness of the charges against an individual detainee and without individualized reasonable suspicion that a strip search was necessary.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit have asked for “appropriate relief,” but no payouts appear to be imminent. Dart’s spokesman, Steve Patterson, said today that the sheriff’s office will appeal the ruling.

No public official is going to agree to an expensive legal settlement if there’s a chance of putting it off or avoiding it altogether. Yet Dart is also trying to avoid looking like he’s defending the policies that landed the office in court. Patterson noted that most of the incidents outlined in the lawsuit occurred before Dart was on the job. Nine of the 11 divisions of the jail now employ electronic body scanners instead of universal strip searches, he said, and the other two should have them by March.

Dart “recognized there were problems in the way things were done, but he took the office and now he has to wear the jacket for everything that came before,” Patterson said. “You can’t say ‘We’re making all the changes’ and in the same breath say, ‘There was nothing wrong here.’”