presenting at a bunch of conferences is a very good thing.

At some point in the last year, I told myself that I was going to take a conference break. Thankfully, that did not happen and I have been able to present at two conferences this fall, with the last one coming up this weekend. I feel fortunate in that conference travel has offered a reprieve from the solitary work of dissertation writing. My students hear this from me a lot, but I somehow need to be reminded that it applies to me, too: writing is a social process!

More importantly, however, these conferences have been an opportunity to integrate a diverse array of methodologies into my project. American Political Development (APD) and the “new institutionalism” are at the core of what I do as a policy historian, but I’ve really come to feel the limits of identifying as a particular variety of historian. In the course of writing my dissertation, a central issue for me has been making sure that my emphasis on policy also includes people making policy decisions– and at a jail, that includes not just sheriffs and jail administrators but staff, lawyers, activists, and jail detainees and inmates who move in a lot of different contexts. If anything, part of the utility of presenting at three conferences in six weeks has been helping me to see the worlds around the jail. While I’ve always been excited about this particular story of Cook County Jail, engaging a broader range of methods is helping me to see why jails more broadly matter in so many different historical conversations.

Some lessons from each conference / conference paper:

  • Association for the Study of African American Life and History:“A Jail Without Bars”: Winston Moore, Cook County Jail, and the Local Origins of Mass Incarceration

This is a conference I must attend every year– in terms of method and quality of scholarship, ASALH had some of the most cutting edge work I’ve seen. Wow. Our panel was hugely inspiring in this regard. With my paper, I wanted to write the rough draft of a journal article about Winston Moore. As readers of my website know, Moore captivates me. As there are explosive conversations happening in our field about the role black people played in the rise of the carceral state, I wanted to think about Moore not just as a black elite, but how the black people in his 80% black jail understood his power (and their own). If anything, I found that silent majority frameworks that emphasize class and respectability can mean overlooking “silent” majorities that actually marshall a lot of power– in this case, the largely black jail population whose Constitutional claims helped to get Moore fired.

  • Society for U.S. Intellectual History: A Brief History of the Idea of Jail Reform

I will admit that before I went, I actually looked up what exactly intellectual history is because I wasn’t entirely sure I could do intellectual history. This panel was born out of a conversation on intellectual history and policing on the USIH blog after Ferguson. I ended up trying to trace the intellectual history of the postwar idea of jail reform, which allowed me to connect the work of Myrl Alexander, a 1950’s Bureau of Prisons head, to Hans Mattick, a Cook County Jail assistant warden who became an influential thinker on this topic in the 1970s. With this perspective, I was overwhelmed by the way that Cook County Jail was not just one of the nation’s largest jails but also, as it is today, the epicenter of thinking about what jails are for. What I really took away from this panel and the brilliant papers presented is that when you look at the ideas that informed the rise of the carceral state, you see so plainly the intentionality of its construction. There is no space for unintended consequences in my interpretation of this story.

  • American Society for Legal History: The LEAA at Cook County Jail

This panel is a dream come true— I cannot believe that I finally get to be on a whole panel about the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration with some of the most remarkable women in our field. I am so obsessed with the LEAA that I once thought to do a dissertation on it (that APD passion for federal agencies runs deep), so I promise to be effusive and hyperbolic when I present this weekend. The view of the LEAA is so dang weird from the county jail level in that it funded jail construction and programs for bail reform to keep people out of jail, as well as provided rationales for the Department of Justice to sue the jail. This paper motivated me to request some files from the Ford Library, and I’m glad I did– my understanding of the federal case against the jail has totally changed as a result.

[UPDATE: Sara Mayeux posted a very comprehensive panel recap over at Legal History blog– this panel was one of my very favorite that I’ve been on and I am so glad to have a record of it.]

talking with the chicago reporter about jail deaths.

I talked with the Chicago Reporter about deaths at Cook County Jail. While they have looked into more recent incidents, there is a deeper history of deaths at the jail that includes murders, suicides, murders covered up as suicides, likely murders by staff covered up as suicides or murders by inmates… and not to mention deaths by medical neglect, failure to properly care for people who are suicidal, and deaths by disease or that occurred under medical care.

It is important to note that in the history of the jail, the care that inmates and detainees receive at Cermak Hospital and in the other jail divisions is probably better than it has ever been and there are a lot of good people at the jail working hard to provide healthcare in very difficult conditions. Tragically for many, the care they receive at the jail will be the only time they ever get access to the care they need. We need a reconfiguration of our social priorities when that is the case.

In the historical record it is difficult to find evidence of these deaths as they have not been consistently reported to newspapers and, as far as I can tell, there are no official documents that exist from my period of research (1950s-1990s) in which the jail even kept track of these incidents. For our own moment, transparency and accountability is key.

One silence in this piece is the courts. Should sick or chronically ill people be sent to jail, particularly to await trial? Is it better if someone does await trial in jail so they can get access to needed healthcare? While the jail lacks discretion– as noted in the piece– judges have the capacity to answer these questions in bond hearings and citizens must find ways to weigh in as well.

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books for fall 2015.

If you are taking History 2219 or History 3296/3280 at Temple University Ambler Campus this fall, welcome! The books available for the course are available as ebooks or can be purchased used (often for a lower cost than renting them from the bookstore). Both classes will use a mix of books and articles; articles will be available on Blackboard by the start of the classes on August 24. Please contact me if you have any questions about the course.

History 2219, Cold War Culture in the United States

Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America by Audra Wolfe

The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left by Landon Storrs

History 3296/3280, Crime and Punishment in the United States 

There have been some behind-the-scenes tech issues at Temple that led some to believe the topic for the course has been changed. Have no fear: we will be studying Crime and Punishment this fall.

Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia 1760-1835 by Michael Meranze

Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David Oshinsky

Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City by Marilynn S. Johnson

finding winston moore: the original psychologist jail warden.

If you’re coming here by way of The Marshall Project piece I wrote about psychologist and Cook County Jail administrator Winston Moore, welcome! If you’re interested in learning more about Cook County Jail history, you can read an outline of my dissertation, as well as these posts which will tell you a bit about:

You might also be interested in the questions I have about a jail reform discourse that centers on the mentally ill.

When I first set out to write a history of American jails in the postwar era, I had no idea where to start. I started out looking at multiple cities and counties, trying to find a few that might make a good case study. It became clear to me that there are a lot of different kinds of jails. County jails, city jails, regional jails, state jails; single-site jails and multi-site jails; jails run by correctional professionals and jails run by regular folks. I felt a little like Goldilocks in search of a feasible dissertation project that was just right (i.e.: finishable and not too expensive to research).

I stumbled onto the story of Winston Moore as I combed through thousands of Chicago Tribune articles. That people in his time called him “the first negro jail warden” caught my eye– but then, over the ensuing ten years worth of newspapers, the story of a tough-talking, larger than life figure emerged. He didn’t sound like anybody I’ve ever read about– and made me wonder– why have I never heard about him? I decided I would do whatever I could to answer that question, and as a result, I built my dissertation around Moore’s exciting and tumultuous years at Cook County Jail. The Marshall Project piece represents three years of work and about 100 pages of my dissertation.

Moore was not an easy man to find in the archive. The Cook County Sheriff’s Department told me they don’t keep any records over ten years old. Moore wrote the occasional comment in magazines like Ebony and Jet, but didn’t publish much else. He seems to have left behind no papers. So, I had to search for him in Chicago’s archives. I found him in legal documents and official reports housed in the ACLU-Illinois records at the University of Chicago. I found him in the papers of his harshest critics– including the John Howard Association records and the Hans Mattick papers at the Chicago History Museum (fortunately, Mattick was something of a hoarder). I found him in the papers of activists who worked with him, through the League of Women Voters-Cook County papers at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Alliance to End Repression papers at the CHM. And of course, I found Moore back in the newspapers where I started. Chicago’s press was fascinated by his honesty and his contradictions and the roller-coaster drama of his administration.

Like all jail administrators, Moore was limited by his context– the War on Crime and the Urban Crisis made running a jail extremely difficult. He was limited by his own managerial capacities, his struggle to play politics, his staff, his budget. But most of all, Moore said the jail itself was his greatest limitation.

“The hardest thing to do though, has been to outlive this institution’s damn awful past. What we need most of all is a new history.”[1]

As Nneka Jones Tapia takes the helm, I hope she’ll remember her institution’s damn awful past and I wish her the best as she makes a new history.

My piece is referenced in this Pacific Standard piece about psychologists running correctional institutions.

[1] Rick Soll, “Winston Moore: Tough not enough,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 8, 1973, 50.

how your local jail became hell.

Excited to have contributed to this piece of important reporting- “How your local jail became hell” by Ryan L. Cooper of The Week. I am proud to be on the record that human dignity and constitutional protection do not come cheaply. Something I believe more strongly since talking to Ryan last summer is that bail reform and pre-trial services are essential components of the struggle to transform our nation’s jails, in large part because so much of the worst of the jail crisis can be avoided by not detaining people before trial at all.

If you’d like a reference for the statistic I provided about jail expansion in the postwar era, take a gander at Jails: Intergovernmental Dimensions of a Local Problem from 1984. This is one of my favorite sources for understanding the jail buildup that predated the War on Drugs.

If you’re coming to my site by way of Ryan’s piece, here’s a description of my dissertation research on the history of Cook County Jail and my takes on the jail construction conundrum, historicizing the Vera Institute jail report, and resources if you want to read more about jail history.

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illustrating chapter five: winston moore and the cook county jail master plan.

Today I am presenting one of my dissertation chapters at the Penn DCC workshop. When I first came across the story of Winston Moore, I was considering doing a project that looked at multiple jails across the country. After reading his story during my newspaper research, I knew I had to do a case study of Cook County Jail. Here are some images that represent chapter 5 cross-posted from my twitter feed.

Abstract for Chapter 5:
What role did federal grants through the War on Crime play in the expansion of county jails? During the 1970s, federal grants through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration created incentives for local governments to choose expansion over other available policy options. At Cook County Jail in Chicago, federal funding both incentivized construction and fostered the institutional growth of a troubled facility that required monitoring by the federal courts into the twenty-first century.
During the 1970s, Cook County Jail administrators used new federal grants to plan and initiate the massive addition of 3,500 beds to the jail. Even as activists used federal funds for bail reform and jail education programs to reduce overcrowding and the county’s reliance on pre-trial detention, Cook County politicians used the same grant sources to build a bigger jail.
At the heart of this project was the jail’s first master plan, which advanced planners’ assumptions that new, efficient buildings would rehabilitate inmates and that rising crime among African Americans would necessitate long-term jail growth. At the helm of this project was Winston Moore, the nation’s first African-American warden. However, because Cook County failed to allocate sufficient manpower resources and repair existing facilities, the federally funded expansion failed to improve conditions for pre-trial detainees and inmates at the jail. The shortcomings of the implementation of the master plan reveals the ways in which local politics undermined the LEAA’s corrections reform agenda. As a result, the federal government sued the jail for using LEAA funds to implement racial segregation in its new facilities and set off a wave of class action suits that shaped the jail’s expansionist politics in coming decades.

Why I tweet so much about this chapter is a subject for another day.

the jail construction conundrum. aerial photo of the House of Correction

In Philadelphia, there is news that the city’s new budget includes funds to buy land for a new jail. The jail would replace the city’s House of Correction, built in 1874, which today houses 1,500 people. As Commissioner Lou Giorla asserts, “It was substantially renovated in 1929 and not since. It requires a number of capital improvements, and it’s difficult to maintain, and it does not support correctional practice today. We have to replace it.”

In New York, a former corrections administrator blames the problems at Rikers Island on archaic facilities. In what appears to be a rebuttal to The New York Times’ careful documentation of a culture of brutality by corrections officers, the official declares “the cumulative effect of years of disrepair and neglect have made Rikers into a place that essentially invites bad behavior… Inmates — in most cases, people who have been accused but not yet convicted of a crime — deserve better. So do correction officers, who deserve decent and respectable working conditions.”

In both cities, I imagine, activists are considering the need to mobilize against imminent jail construction in a moment widely celebrated by bipartisan coalitions as an epoch of decarceration and criminal justice reform.

The question of whether problems in either city jail system can be resolved by jail construction is a complicated one. After World War II, counties across the country embarked on the project of replacing archaic jail facilities; by 1978, nearly 60% of the nation’s jail population lived in facilities built after 1950.[1] In spite of this construction, a rights revolution of class action lawsuits over jail conditions flourished throughout the United States.

In a 1969 report on Illinois jails, scholar Hans W. Mattick looked skeptically at jail construction, suggesting, “the fundamental fact about jail reform… has consisted of replacing dilapidated facilities with new structures. The same old sour milk is poured into new bottles while the mold continues to flourish.”[2]

Mattick’s concerns that new facilities would remain understaffed, dirty, and dangerous were born out by the ensuing forty years of class action suits at Cook County Jail in Chicago. Every time administrators asked for funds to build a new building, they promised improved conditions; with each new building, there were more allegations of inmate maltreatment. Today, an ongoing class action suit by the MacArthur Justice Center focuses on two of the Jail’s newest buildings, all of which should, on paper, meet modern day correctional standards. Charging “The sadistic violence and brutality at the Cook County Jail is not the work of a few rogue officers,” it seems likely that new buildings have not resolved a culture of violence that is rooted in labor practices at Cook County Jail.

With this history in mind, should we dismiss jail construction altogether? In the Philadelphia case, I don’t doubt for a second that housing people in a facility built in 1874 is a living nightmare for both detainees and staff. A new facility would probably be a vast improvement, and indeed, replacing a structure that is over one hundred years old is kind of a policy no brainer. I doubt that a fight against jail construction in Philadelphia will be successful. As the call for construction at Rikers comes on the heels of inmates saving a corrections officer from a sexual attack, it is difficult to argue with the fact that existing jail spaces aren’t dangerous. They are dangerous.

However, discussion about jail construction must also be accompanied by a reassessment of how local courts use bail and how much pre-trial detention in these facilities is truly necessary. Jail administrators will choose construction to deal with their internal problems; it is a tool of reform that they will use in spite of evidence against its efficacy because it is one of the few tools they have. Unfortunately, jail policy is often made in isolation from the policing and judicial contexts that fill jail beds in the first place.

The best way to avoid jail construction is to divert those arrested from pre-trial detention through a reduced dependence on money bail. Only after the courts have done their part to reduce pre-trial populations can communities make informed decisions about whether or not maintaining a city’s jail bed capacity is truly necessary.

[1] Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Jails: Intergovernmental Dimisions of a Local Problem (Washington DC: May 1984), 6.

[2] Hans W. Mattick and Ronald P. Sweet, Illinois Jails: Challenge and Opportunity for the 1970’s (Chicago: Center for Studies in Criminal Justice, the Law School, University of Chicago, 1969), A.