How to Collect and Analyze Cook County Jail Data (2023)

At ProPublica Illinois, we have embarked on a data collection project to gather new information about what happens to inmates at Cook County Jail, one of the largest and most well-known jails in the country. Cook County Jail has been the subject of national attention and repeated reform efforts over the years, and we believe that collecting and analyzing data about the inmate population can shed light on the inner workings of the jail and help answer urgent questions.

Background of Cook County Jail

Cook County Jail has a long and storied history. It gained notoriety in 1931 when Al Capone, the infamous gangster, was held there in what was described as "VIP accommodations." Over the years, the jail has faced numerous challenges, including allegations of inmate abuse, overcrowding, and violations of inmates' rights. Efforts to reform the jail and improve conditions have been ongoing, with various individuals and organizations pushing for change.

The Need for Detailed Inmate Data

One of the challenges in understanding the issues surrounding Cook County Jail is the lack of detailed data about the inmate population. While this information is a matter of public record, it has been difficult to obtain. Even previous attempts to collect data through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have been met with limited success. However, recent developments have improved the availability of inmate data, thanks to the efforts of the Chicago Data Cooperative, a coalition of local newsrooms and civic-data organizations.

The Cook County Jail Scraper Project

To further enhance the availability of inmate data, we have restarted the Cook County Jail scraper project at ProPublica Illinois. This project involves collecting data from the Cook County Jail website, specifically the inmate pages, and creating daily snapshots of the jail population. Each record in the daily snapshots represents a single inmate on a single day. The data collected includes information such as booking ID, booking date, race, gender, height, weight, housing location, charges, bail amount, next court date, and next court location.

Data Collection Process

The scraper works by mirroring the inmate pages on the Cook County Jail website and processing them to create the daily snapshots. The data in the snapshots is anonymized to protect the privacy of the inmates. Names are stripped out, and personal details are converted into a one-way hash, allowing researchers to study recidivism without compromising individual identities. The scraper also tracks inmates' court dates over time and their movements within the jail complex.

Analyzing the Data

The collected data will be analyzed using various tools, such as Jupyter and R, to gain insights into the inmate population and their experiences in the jail. By examining patterns in the data, we hope to answer important questions, such as the duration of inmate lock-up, the number of court dates they have, the most common charges, and any disparities in housing or disciplinary actions. This analysis will provide a comprehensive understanding of what happens to inmates during their time in Cook County Jail.

Collaboration and Contributions

We welcome collaboration and contributions from individuals interested in jail data and criminal justice reform. If you have expertise in data analysis, programming, or any related field, we encourage you to get involved. You can check out the project's GitHub repository for more information on how to contribute. Additionally, if you have suggestions or insights on how we can improve our approach to the data, please don't hesitate to submit an issue.

In conclusion, the Cook County Jail data collection project aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the inmate population and their experiences within the jail. By collecting and analyzing detailed data, we hope to shed light on the inner workings of the jail and contribute to ongoing efforts to improve conditions and promote criminal justice reform.

Note: This article is intended to provide an overview of the Cook County Jail data collection project and does not constitute legal or professional advice.


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