Bundled Chicagoans who aimed to stay inside heated homes or establishments Monday ahead of the polar vortex were shocked to see a handful of Cook County Jail inmates on the side of the road shoveling walkways — wearing nothing but orange jumpsuits as they worked tirelessly to clear snow.
A resident snapped an image of the chilly scene and shared it with friends.
"They got the inmates cleaning with no real winter gear," a caption read on the Snapchat, which showed at least a half dozen inmates outside working.
Soon, friends started sharing screenshots of the image and it made its way onto a local community Facebook page, where it was shared by nearly 15,000 people. Thousands of people commented on the post, many expressing concerns about the safety of the prisoners as temperatures began to plunge.
"Chicago! Give those inmates the tools and proper attire for the job! They are human too just like everyone else!" one Facebooker user commented.
"They’re still human, no one should have to go outside without ANY winter gear in this type of weather," another agreed.
"That’s inhuman having them outside like that," a third chimed in.
But the Cook County Sheriff’s Office says the viral post doesn't give locals the whole picture. Rather, the inmates are part of a vocational training program called RENEW, which pays nonviolent offenders to do various tasks around nearby communities in the months following their release from custody.
“The situation was entirely and intentionally misrepresented,” Cara Smith, chief spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, explained to the Chicago Tribune.
Smith confirmed many people's suspicions: the inmates were wearing clothes under the orange suits, which were insulated. They were also given winter gear such as gloves and hats to help protect them from the blistering winds.
"We work very hard to get these young men jobs when they graduate from the program,” Smith told the newspaper, adding there was also a heated van nearby for anyone who needed a break from the cold Monday. “I think our track record for caring about the people that are in custody is pretty solid, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
The program halts all outside work once temperatures reach below 20 degrees, Smith confirmed to the Huffington Post. So, it's safe to say RENEW members will remain indoors Wednesday, as temperatures in Chicago drop to around minus 20 degrees.
Smith said they will assure jailed inmates will also stay warm during the deep freeze.
"We’ll be vigilant about the temperatures throughout the division in the coming days,” she told the Tribune, adding that they will monitor the temperature inside the facility every half hour to ensure everyone stays safe.
Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, still questioned how shoveling benefits the inmates.
“I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that shoveling snow is a skilled form of labor that’s going to lead to job opportunities upon release,” she argued to the Tribune.