The Cook County Jail on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 26, 2014 6:38AM
The massive compound that is the Cook County Jail bears down on the Little Village neighborhood of South Sacramento Avenue between 26th and 31st streets.
A towering concrete slab walls off the inmates’ exercise yard from the neighborhood, though from the right angle residents can see basketball hoops in the yard.
From a certain vantage point, inmates can see the residents, too.
“Hey, sweetheart,” one shouted to a woman walking Wednesday against the glare of the summer sun on the chain-link fence and rows of barbed and sharper razor wires.
“Hey, white girl,” I heard later as I walked across the street.
Mostly, inmates’ banter could be heard.
To live here means the sights and sounds of the jail, a 96-acre facility, are not at all bothersome.
Those who have business at the jail or courthouse often use entrances on California, but marked and unmarked sheriff patrol cars are a continuous presence on Sacramento.
There are round-the-clock patrols of the jail, and many officers cruise the street to drop off alleged offenders or report for work.
“We feel more protected here,” said resident Francisco Salgado, 47.
“We always see police outside,” said Leticia Bahena, 20. “We used to live in another neighborhood with gang bangers hanging around. It’s quiet [on Sacramento], not like other streets.”
Children rode their bicycles up and down the sidewalk on the evenings I visited. Residents stopped to chat with Jose Carmen Montoya-Muriyo, who has a refreshment stand on a corner and lets some kids run a tab to be paid later by their parents.
“There is so much activity here with the kids,” Montoya-Muriyo said. “I lived on Kedzie and knew no one. Same with Trumbull. This is so different. We know each other.”
Montoya-Muriyo relies on visitors to the jail to make a few bucks at his stand. He wondered aloud whether visitation hours were cut back earlier this year when business was bad. “Without visitors, it’s so hard,” he said.
They will never have a block party here; large gatherings would pose a security risk to the jail, Salgado mentioned. One resident whose name I could not verify said a sheriff’s officer spoke tersely to him when he was outside with family members, telling them to break up their small group. Other officers are more cordial and say hello, he said.
Above all, residents value safety in this hard-luck area. The previously mentioned resident said this stretch of Sacramento is among the safest streets off 26th.
There are still trouble spots: Graffiti marks the alley behind Sacramento; some residents spoke of stolen bicycles. Registered sex offenders live near the jail.
Every house seems to have iron or chain-link fencing, synonymous with city life for the poor and rich.
Mario Reyes, 50, assistant executive director of the jail, grew up blocks away. It reminded him to stay on the right path and motivated him and nine of his eighth-grade classmates to pursue careers in law enforcement as adults, he said.
“It was always a rough area,” Reyes recalled of the neighborhood, especially in the 1980s.
The presence of the jail and patrolling officers has a short reach in deterring crime. So far this year, at least 10 homicides have occurred within a 2.2-mile radius of 26th and California.
But there has been none on that stretch of Sacramento.