A viral photo of Chicago inmates shoveling snow outside a Cook County jail without proper winter gear is sparking outrage as the Midwest endures a polar vortex.
The photo, which first appeared on the Facebook page “La Villita, Chicago,” shows several inmates in orange jumpsuits shoveling the snow on the entry walkway to the Cook County Jail.
“They got the inmates cleaning with no real winter gear,” read the caption of the photo.
Eventually, the photo was retweeted by the Chicago Community Bond Fund with a caption that says Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart “appears to have incarcerated people shoveling snow without proper winter weather attire.”
Throughout the week, Chicago’s freezing weather reached as low as double-digit subzero temperatures. With the city having experienced 19 cold weather-related deaths since the end of October, the Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation before the polar vortex hit.
Even though the state issued a warning to residents, the safety precaution did not seem to be reserved for the Cook County inmates.
Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Cara Smith released a statement which said the photo mischaracterizes the situation and that the Chicago Community Bond Fund should not have shared it without contacting her.
According to Smith, the men photographed are part of Renew, a vocational program which pays inmates to learn skills. As part of the program, the inmates are selected for projects in distressed communities. Smith also said some of the inmates were happy to clear the snow.
What’s more, Smith assured the inmates in the photo were wearing “highly insulated jumpsuits, gloves, mittens and insulated boots,” and rotated in and out of warming vans every 20 minutes.
“We take full responsibility,” she said. “We haven’t lost our minds.”
Smith also said the program does not let the men work outside once it gets below 20 degrees.
Manuel Diaz, who submitted the photo to the Little Village Facebook page, said he shared the photo out of concern for the inmates.
“I know a lot of people who have unfortunately had to do time in the county jail,” Diaz told them. “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. … They have a big enough staff and budget that they shouldn’t rely on inmates to clear snow.”
(Photo: Diephosi/Getty Images)