A viral photo of Chicago jail inmates shoveling snow in freezing weather is sparking outrage

  • A viral photo prompted outrage on Monday, showing Chicago jail inmates outside shoveling snow just before the polar vortex caused temperatures to plunge.
  • A spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office told INSIDER the photo was “misleading,” that the inmates’ jumpsuits were “highly insulated,” and that they had volunteered for the task.
  • The inmates were working as part of a sheriff’s program to gain job skills, though their tasks are usually limited to demolishing abandoned buildings, she said.
  • The incident sparked a debate over what type of work inmates should be assigned.
  • “I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that shoveling snow is a skilled form of labour that’s going to lead to job opportunities upon release,” one activist said.

A photograph showing Chicago jail inmates outside shoveling snow drew backlash this week, as the city braced for a polar vortex bringing record-low temperatures and freezing winds.

The outrage began when a Facebook page for Chicago’s Little Village neighbourhood posted a Snapchat photo of the inmates on Monday with the caption, “They got the inmates cleaning with no real winter gear.”

Soon, the picture was picked up by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which tweeted that they were “alarmed” by the sight of inmates shoveling snow in the cold.

On Monday, when the inmates were shoveling, the high in Chicago was 35 degrees Fahrenheit and the low was 9 degrees. Temperatures were colder on Wednesday, with the low dipping to -19 degrees Fahrenheit.

A spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Cara Smith, told INSIDER that the photo was “misleading” – not only were the inmates dressed in “highly insulated jumpsuits” with hats, gloves, and insulated boots, but they had also volunteered for the task when jail staff asked.

“We take the care of our detainees very seriously,” Smith said on Wednesday. “No one was at risk – they were more than happy to help us out.”

She added that the jail had provided a warm van for inmates to jump in and out of as they worked.

“These young men were happy to jump in and help us,” she said.

Read more: This is what Midwesterners actually do to stay warm in below-freezing temperatures

Smith said the inmates in the photo were part of the sheriff’s Restoring Neighbourhoods Workforce (RENEW), a program inmates are enrolled in as part of their sentences. They get paid roughly $US2 per hour for their services.

She added their work mainly includes demolishing abandoned buildings, not shoveling snow, and the program has rules not to allow the detainees outside if it’s lower than 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

But local activists weren’t satisfied with Smith’s answers – the Chicago Community Bond Fund tweeted the photo again on Tuesday, dismissing “the absurd idea that this was workforce training.”

“I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that shoveling snow is a skilled form of labour that’s going to lead to job opportunities upon release,” Sharlyn Grace, the group’s co-executive director, told The Chicago Tribune.

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