America’s jail crisis: historicizing the Vera Institute report.

It is not every day that the world wakes up to the crisis in America’s jails. Thanks to an important new report by the Vera Institute, my twitter feed today is buzzing about jails. Can I be any more excited? Slick infographics and lots of data all in one place, and a financial incentive for jails from the MacArthur Foundation for them to get to work. This is a BIG deal and I’m glad that both organizations are working to make jails apart of the ongoing reform discourse.

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What’s problematic, of course, is that folks are using presentist language to describe the findings- chief among them, a historically inaccurate The New York Times headline: “Jails Have Become Warehouses for the Poor, Ill and Addicted, A Report Says.” This is frustrating. There is a deeper history that shows that America’s jail crisis has been ongoing since at least the 1950s. This crisis has been accompanied by a reform movement that for just as long has been unable to garner adequate funding for jails and has been not been able to influence the systemic reform needed to keep people out of jails. The history of American jails does not give me a lot of confidence that jail reform is possible.

One of the key historical claims comes on the first page of the report:

“this report marks a bittersweet homecoming for Vera as our very first project was The Manhattan Bail Project, which showed that many, if not most, people accused of com- mitting a crime can be relied on to appear in court without having to post bail or be held until trial. The lessons we learned and shared in 1961 have not stuck nearly enough.”

The Manhattan Bail Project was a game changer and its reference speaks to the deeper history. After World War II, jails were overcrowded hellholes. Unlike jails today, few offered adequate healthcare or training for guards. It was difficult to inmates to access books, lawyers, or even their families- most jails didn’t allow children to visit. Basic laundry services were limited for inmates who wore their own clothes and bedbugs were rampant. Food spending was often a quarter of what it was in prisons. People went to jail for many of the same reasons as today- thefts, DUIs, narcotics, violent crimes- but also for reasons that are less common than today- like failure to pay alimony. In many cases, they were in jail because they could not pay bail.

Cook County Jail was overcrowded when it opened in 1929 and it was still overcrowded in 1954. In Cook County, bail reform projects modeled after the Manhattan Bail Project during the 1960s and 1970s helped to reduce the amount of bail paid (just 10% of the total amount) or in many situations, allowed for “release on recognizance” with no bail paid at all. Using risk assessment, courts used social information about inmates in order to determine whether they might commit crimes while awaiting court or not show up for court (interestingly, some of these risk assessments. Court reform increased the number of judges, helping to reduce “time to trial.” Night courts, weekend courts, and holiday courts came out of this moment.

The Manhattan Bail Project, and projects like it, however, failed to produce lasting reform. Even in the midst of bail reform, jails like Cook County remained overcrowded from the 1960s onward. Judges never used ROR as much as activists wanted; police, armed with new cool toys, policed without regard for the amount of space jails actually had. Policymakers advocated for more punitive policies and policing of a wider number of crimes. Jails were so overwhelmed with bodies that programming- including drug rehabilitation programs- was often out of reach or operated at too small of a scale to have a meaningful impact, usually because of cost.

With the coming of inmate class action suits in the 1970s and 1980s, jails could no longer wait for other elements of the criminal justice apparatus to reform themselves. Federal judges condemned filthy conditions, lack of beds, brutality, and violence as violating the due process rights of people who had not gone to trial. Since then, many jails have focused on their struggle to maintain constitutionally sound conditions (which is a very low standard).

The crisis in American jails is not new. When I think of the history of American jails, I agree with the Vera Institute’s conclusion:

“The misuse of jails is neither inevitable nor irreversible. But to chart a different course will take leadership and vision. No single decision or decision maker in a local justice system determines who fills the local jail. While some jurisdictions have made strides in developing, implementing, and evaluating off-ramps from the path that leads to the jailhouse door, change at one point in the system will have limited impact if other key actors and policies pull in the opposite direction.”

However, I’m not so sure the institutional or political capacity- let alone, will- yet exists “to both scale back and improve how jails are used in a sustainable way.” That so many jails are now under federal oversight shows that even if jails reduced the numbers of people inside them, it would take decades of work and billions of dollars to make them into institutions that are actually able to serve the common good and promote human dignity. Nobody- not politicians, activists, citizens, jail administrators, or sheriffs- has ever truly been up for that task for the long haul. The very history of American jails shows that jails are one of our country’s most unsustainable institutions. Can jails be saved? Are they worth saving? I’m not so sure.

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CCP- history 103.

If you are student from my History 103 course at Community College of Philadelphia and would like to avoid long lines at the Bookstore, I am sharing links to the course texts. You will need them to prepare for class on January 24, so you have plenty of time to order online if you choose to do so. If you are tight on cash: you will be fine with an the earlier edition of Give Me Liberty but you will need the most recent edition of the documents book, Voices of Freedom. January 17 is the only day that you will not need to bring your documents book to class.

If you have any questions, please get in touch at mnewport AT ccp DOT edu.

http://www.amazon.com/Give-Me-Liberty-American-History/dp/0393920313/ (Links to an external site.) (4th edition)

http://www.amazon.com/Give-Me-Liberty-American-History/dp/0393911918/ (Links to an external site.) (3rd edition)

http://www.amazon.com/Voices-Freedom-Documentary-History-Edition/dp/0393922928/ (Links to an external site.) (documents book)

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reviving bail reform: from the alliance to end repression to #decarcerateCHI

“A democratic society or a police state in America– which will it be?” This was the guiding question of the Alliance to End Repression, a coalition of over fifty activist groups that formed in 1970. “Reaching from the Black and Latin ghettos to the affluent suburbs” of Chicago and Cook County, the coalition included Black Panthers, the Chicago Bar Association, and the League of Women Voters, in addition to large numbers of neighborhood organizations.

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The Alliance came together to seek justice after the police assassinations of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Rather than limit their agenda to just one issue, they pressed for a “unified, inclusive, action-oriented alliance” in challenging the police state. In a political moment of police spying and police torture, this was a bold move indeed. The Alliance to End Repression (AER) is best remembered for their successful legal challenge to the Red Squad‘s unconstitutional activities.

Not to be overlooked, the Alliance to End Repression initiated the Cook County Special Bail Project because, as they saw it, “unfair and unconstitutional bail practices in Cook County constitute a major source of repression.” For the Alliance, organizing against the “repression of constitutional rights” included keeping people out of jail who didn’t need to be there while they waited for trial. In an era of intense brutality and overcrowding at Cook County Jail, the Alliance’s Special Bail Project kept thousands out of jail during the 1970s.

Two major bail reforms had come to Illinois in the 1960s. “Ten percent bail” eliminated bail bondsman and allowed detainees to pay ten percent of their bond directly in order to obtain release from jail. “Release on recognizance” (ROR) allowed people to be released while awaiting trial if they did not have the money for bail but had strong social support to ensure they showed up for court.

Rather than proclaim “mission accomplished,” the Alliance organized to provide bail funds for people who needed their ten percent and provided 300 volunteers to observe Cook County courts and interview detainees to help them obtain ROR bonds. Sadly, when federal funding for the Special Bail Project ran out, Cook County chose not to continue the program as it had been constituted under AER. Cook County Jail quickly became unconstitutionally overcrowded.

The work of the Alliance to End Repression reminds us that challenges to police brutality and shootings don’t have to be limited to marching in the streets. We need a complete transformation of police forces, court practices, and jails. I am proud to support SOUL in their efforts to seek bail reform and end mass incarceration in Cook County today.

[quotes and image from “A Democratic Society or A Police State in America: Which Will it Be?,” Alliance to End Repression flyer, Summer 1970, 2, Folder 6, Box 16, Alliance to End Repression Papers, Chicago History Museum Research Center]

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update: Philadelphia ballot question 2 to create a Department of Prisons.

One of my favorite books to teach is John Lewis Gaddis’ The Landscape of History. Gaddis contends “that the historian of the past is much better off than the participant of the present from the simple fact of having an expanded horizon.” (4) The more I write of my dissertation, the more I agree with Gaddis- being an on-the-ground actor is frustrating when you are sure that there are lots of variables at work that you can’t see.

I point this out because I tried to inform myself on Philadelphia’s ballot question 2, which offers a change to the city charter regarding Philadelphia Prison System’s place in the bureaucratic tangle of city agencies. I felt like I came up short, and indicated that I would probably vote “no” given the lack of good information. Much to my surprise– truly, because usually most everyone I write about is dead– Lou Giorla, commissioner of PPS, read my post and encouraged me to get in touch and ask some questions.

The long and the short of it is, according to the Commissioner, “yes” on the ballot question doesn’t change much administratively. PPS has been, since 1990, operating as a department independent from the Department of Public Welfare. Apparently, when this change was made organizationally but not to the charter (the answer to “why” confirms to me again that this would make an interesting research project). The issue came up again in 2009 when PPS sought some of the hiring and negotiation capacities that other agencies (the exempt hiring thing), such as the Fire Department and Police Department, have. However, because 2009 was a terrible time for local governments (you may recall that whole financial collapse thing), the measure was effectively tabled. The measure was revived in an effort to bring the charter into line with how government has been operating. This requires a ballot question to change the city charter. From what I understood the Commissioner as saying, this won’t interfere with the current functions of the Board of Trustees. There is a pretty no cost measure- the Commissioner said it would require “no new stationary” because again, the ballot question moves to ensure that the charter reflects an organic change in governance that has occurred over time.

On the issue of RISE, which I think for many people may be the bigger issue, the Commissioner noted that RISE is already somewhat integrated into PPS already because PPS works with such a large number of folks needing immediate access to reentry services because they may be in a PPS pretty briefly. In the past, RISE’s predecessor MORE operated separately from PPS, and was problematic as PPS was looking to do more for reentry. According to the Commissioner, bringing RISE into PPS will help it to have a better defined funding stream. I think this is pretty much in line with the “pros” I considered in the original post. A commenter on the post raised a good question (some of the comments went onto my About Me page, so I’ll post it here):

“I wonder about combining city re-entry programs under the same management as the prisons. The two are at odds. (One focuses on keeping people in, and its budget grows as the number of prisoners grow; the other focuses on keeping people out of prison.) Will programatic goals for prisons overwhelm those for re-entry?” I think that is a question worth chewing on, and this is a question that, if the ballot issue passes, we should continue to ask as people remain tethered to corrections systems long after release.

I’m still mulling over this new information and probably will be until I get into the ballot box, but overall, I think this is a good reminder that:

1. even as I write the story of one particularly messed up jail in Chicago, I should be paying attention to the jail in my own city, and

2. getting touch with your local officials can be really easy. Who knew?

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how I will vote on Philadelphia ballot question 2 to create a Department of Prisons.

It’s election season! I was so concerned with Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race that I was shocked when a friend told me that there is a jail measure on Philadelphia ballots. It is not every day a jail issue comes to the ballot, and surprisingly, activist groups have been quiet on this issue and there is not a lot of clear information available.

Here is the ballot question:

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to transfer responsibility for managing and operating the City’s jails from the Department of Public Welfare and the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons to a new Department of Prisons and Board of Trustees?

Here is the plain english statement:

Currently, the City’s Home Rule Charter assigns the responsibility of operating the City’s prisons to two entities. The Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons is responsible for the direction and control of the management of the City’s prisons, which includes selection of the Superintendent of the City’s prisons, who administers the City’s prisons. The Department of Public Welfare (commonly referred to as the Department of Human Services, or “DHS”) has general supervisory responsibility in connection with the City’s prisons.

The proposed Charter change would create a new Department of Prisons, responsible for operating the City’s prisons. The Department would be headed by a Prisons Commissioner, who would supervise the management and operation of the City’s prisons. He or she also would be responsible for maintaining a program for facilitating the reintegration of individuals returning from incarceration. The Prisons Commissioner would be appointed by, and would report to, the City’s Managing Director. The Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons would be responsible for adopting standards and guidelines to be considered by the Prisons Commissioner when making policy relating to the City’s prisons.

Ok, so this is a proposal to make a new government agency separate from the Department of Public Welfare (DHS) and the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons. I was surprised by this because many jail and prison agencies at the county and state levels did this between the 1940s and the 1970s (often called a “Department of Corrections”). I don’t know the story on Philadelphia’s current system- a history of the Board of Trustees would make a great senior thesis. That said, here are some key issues:

1. At stake seems to be who appoints the Prisons Superintendent or Commissioner.

This raises two questions for me:

a. Who is currently on the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons?

Here are the bios of the Board appointees from 2008. First thing I notice is that it doesn’t include any corrections professionals or people who study corrections issues, but it does include several lawyers, a doctor, a social worker, an activist, and a strategic planner. All of these people are appointed by the Mayor.

b. Who is the city’s Managing Director?

Richard Negrin. Here is his twitter feed. Also an appointee of the mayor, he is a lawyer, former prosecutor, and “Vice President, Associate General Counsel and a member of the Executive Leadership Council of ARAMARK Corporation.”(Here’s his linkedin profile) Aramark, which contracts to provide food in many prisons, has been in the news recently for maggots in prison food in Michigan and has a long track record of problems nationwide. It appears that Aramark, a Philadelphia-based company, holds the contracts to Philadelphia Prisons. So there is possibly a conflict of interest here; at the very least, having someone in charge with a connection to prison profiteering makes me pretty uncomfortable.

2. At stake is also that the new Prisons Commissioner “would be responsible for maintaining a program for facilitating the reintegration of individuals returning from incarceration.”

The Mayor’s RISE reentry program (whose website rise.phila.gov is dead apparently) is a pretty popular initiative that, I’m guessing, Mayor Nutter would like to see made more permanent and could be operated more efficiently if tied to the Department of Prisons.

3. Not explained in the statement, but in this testimony from a Senior Policy Analyst at the Committee of Seventy, are the implications creating a Department of Prisons would have for hiring people exempt from civil service requirements rather than doing internal civil service promotions.

The practical consequence of this arrangement is the Prison Commissioner’s inability to appoint deputies exempt from civil service regulations. (The Charter allows up to 10 for each department.) Although the DHS Commissioner has this authority and could make appointments on behalf of the prisons, doing so would require sharing the DHS allotment of appointments. At this time, DHS has nine exempt positions. The prison system has none. All three of Commissioner Giorla’s deputies were promoted according to civil service rules.

Providing agency executives with latitude to choose their own deputies, should they opt to do so, is a critical facet of effective governance. In addition to the DHS Commissioner, other city department heads use this authority. The Police Department has seven exempt deputies and the Fire Department has five – both similar to the prison system not only in their size and complexity, but also in the gravity of their work.

Civil service exemptions for the city (explained here) would allow the Prisons Commissioner to hire his/her own deputies to implement their Prison Commissioner’s agenda. This seems to be in contrast to hiring such people from within civil service- people that, in corrections, would have usually come up through the guard ranks. Hiring outside administrators can be a way to check entrenched systems of corruption that condone brutality. That said, I am more inclined to think that exempt positions could just be patronage positions. As this deputy component is not written into the question we are voting on it, I’m not sure how much this aspect of it should be brought to bear on voting decisions.

Here’s how I feel:

I am skeptical about consolidating power from a Board of Trustees with a range of experiences and perspectives into the hands of an individual with strong ties to Aramark. While a “yes” vote on this wouldn’t eliminate the Board of Trustees, I am not convinced that passage of this change to the city charter would, say, lead to the hiring of someone other than the current commissioner, who himself came up through the guard ranks in Philadelphia Prisons, as did the rest of his executive staff.

As a jail historian, I am not keen on jail reform discourse that centers on bureaucratic efficiency. Quite often, making a jail system more efficient seems to do no more than make it more efficient for jails to expand or detain ever larger numbers of people. Efficiency does not eliminate brutality or ensure that detainees and inmates are safer in the jail.

So, there are two ways to vote. A “no” vote will not change anything. Usually, that would be enough to persuade me to vote “yes” because I’m a pretty progressive person. But I’m not convinced, for this particular, measure, that a “yes” would lead to the kind of change I want.I do not think a “yes” vote on this ballot question will do much to change the status quo in Philadelphia Prisons. I am concerned that giving a former Aramark VP power over Philadelphia Prisons could have very negative outcomes for people living in Philadelphia Prisons. I am not convinced that a “yes” vote will do much to advance the cause of human dignity in Philadelphia Prisons. Recent reporting on a beating that took place in front of jail visitors suggests to me that there are far greater issues in Philadelphia Prisons we need to investigate before making any changes. Without more information or public discussion of this issue, I am inclined to vote no.

Please feel free to share your perspective in the comments.

UPDATE: I heard from Decarcerate PA, they are also continuing to investigate this initiative.

Also, there is a new piece on brutality in Philadelphia Prisons by Daniel Denvir worth checking out. Even deeper in the past than a consent decree, the Board of Trustees would have provided oversight and accountability on these sorts of issues. More substantive reform might rethink the BOT and the mayor’s total control over appointments (in this way- and probably only this way- having a county board might be helpful).

A friend on facebook points out that this likely won’t be implemented under the current Mayor’s administration. So perhaps the real how many people you want signing off on the Prisons Commissioner? Tricky.

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hearing a voice for the first time.

Anybody who has talked to me about my dissertation project in the last year has probably heard me talk about Hans W. Mattick. He was a criminologist who came of age with the “second Chicago school” of sociology’s emphasis on “applied criminology.” He was not one to hide out in his ivory tower; as such, he never finished his book on American jails (instead publishing it in an anthology) and didn’t publish many academic articles. As such, his work intersects with my project in that he worked as Assistant Warden at Cook County Jail early in his career and continued to study and advocate for jail reform for the rest of his life.

used for educational and scholarly purposes courtesy of the University of Chicago Photographic Archive.

His papers, housed at the Chicago History Museum, tell the story of a consummate scholar-activist. He was a neurotic chronicler who saved everything and meticulously annotated his papers, adding dates and commentary, always careful to point out when he was plagiarized (often by Cook County politicians and jail administrators) and when someone was lying (often Cook County politicians and administrators). Mattick’s writings have popped up in every collection I’ve looked at for the dissertation; he is perhaps the most dominant narrator in the first half of my project (from about 1954-1978).*

At any rate, I run into Mattick enough in my work that I feel an affinity to him. In Hyde Park, I’ve walked by the location of the slummy college apartment he lived in and the nicer apartment building where he took his own life. His handwriting has become familiar to me. I have gotten frustrated with him when I haven’t been able to find a document I know he would have kept (I eventually found it; thankfully his wife made sure a few straggler boxes made it into his collection after he died). Getting to know Hans Mattick has been one of the unexpected pleasures of my work.

At any rate, I was delighted to find that his appearance on “The Studs Terkel Program” has been digitized. Mattick was an advocate for Paul Crump, who was on death row at Cook County Jail (the presence of an electric chair at the jail made it quite exceptional). To be able to hear his voice (at last!) is one of the weird perks of being a twentieth century historian.

I like the way he says “rehabilitation.”

https://archive.org/embed/popuparchive-1856627

He pops up around 14:00.

*While I know it’s problematic that my window into the jail at that time is, in many ways, totally contingent upon what Mattick saved, it will always be more problematic that the Jail destroyed so many of its own records.

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so you’d like to add jails to your prison history syllabus.

When I started working on the history of American jails, I read a lot of crappy corrections textbooks that gave me a perception of American jail history that was at worst distorted, and at best flattened. It’s taken me some time to wade through the dregs to get to the good stuff. As such, I haven’t really dealt with jails as I’ve taught courses focused on prison history. I think this is problematic as pre-trial detention and short jail sentences are perhaps the most commonplace experiences of incarceration in this country today.

While jail historiography is still rather emergent (I’m doing my part), here are some rich pieces that might help you to incorporate the history of local incarceration and pre-trial detention into your syllabus (or your scholarship!). I did not include books already listed on my prison history reading list. This is by no means a comprehensive or definitive collection of jail scholarship, but rather, it’s a selection of pieces that might provide opportunities for historicizing jails. If access is an issue, I am happy to make any PDFs that I have available to you upon request. If I missed anything that you like, let me know and I’ll add it.

A word of caution- if you use sources on Walnut St. Jail during the early republic, be advised that it continued to be called a jail while it was operating as what we would call a state prison. I don’t think this distinction is stressed enough in the literature that deals with the rise of the Pennsylvania system. This transition is explored briefly in Negley K. Teeters,”Caleb Lownes of Philadelphia : 1754-1828: Administrator of the First Penitentiary in the World- The Walnut Street Jail,” The Prison Journal 43, no. 2 (October 1963), 34-45; the texts cited in footnote 14 are also instructive.

Frontier jails receive brief treatment in Rothman’s classic Discovery of the Asylum. There are a number of articles on 19th century jails that tend toward straight forward descriptions of conditions. One example of this is Philip D. Jordan “The Close and Stinking Jail,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 60, No. 1 (January 1969), 1-9.

Timothy J. Gilfoyle, “‘America’s Greatest Criminal Barracks’: The Tombs and the Experience of Criminal Justice in New York City, 1838-1897,” Journal of Urban History 29, no. 5 (July 2003), 525-54.

This should be a go-to nineteenth-century piece for historians because it is actually written by a professional, contemporary historian. You probably already know it. It really gets at how nasty nineteenth-century urban jails were. If you’re assigning anything on nineteenth-century Northern prisons, this article creates sharp contrast.

There was a pretty significant discourse about jails in the early twentieth century. Many interesting pieces are in the public domain and are digitally available. A few of these include:

American Prison Association semi-centennial, 1870-1920. County jails ‘in the light of the declaration of principles of 1870 (New York: American Prison Association, 1920).

This anthology was produced by the APA for their 50th anniversary because they realized that they includes some great short pieces such as “The Abolition of the County Jail,” by Frederick Howard Wines that captures the spirit of the jail abolition movement (as does this piece by his contemporary, Edith Abbott) and an overview of the state of jails by John L. Whitman, a former warden of Cook County Jail.

Chicago Community Trust, Reports Comprising the Survey of the Cook County Jail (Chicago: Calumet Publishing Co., 1922).

This study was commissioned to show the jail as it was and inform the planning of the new Cook County Jail. It includes a good discussion of social scientists they understood criminality in regard to jails. It includes a lot of advice that the builders of the jail ignored (this jail still in use today as Division 1).

Joseph F. Fishman with Vee Perlman, Crucibles of Crime: The Shocking Story of the American Jail (New York: Cosmopolis Press, 1923).

Fishman was a federal jail inspector who travelled the country to see the conditions that federal prisoners were detained in at county jails. This book is easy to read, sensational in tone, and captures the “schools for crime” discourse about jails prominent in the 1920s.

I am waiting eagerly for Kelly Lytle Hernandez’s work on Los Angeles. If you know of a great interwar or postwar / mid-century jail text, let me know- I obviously still have a lot of reading and research to do on this front.

Hans W. Mattick, “The Contemporary Jails of the United States: An Unknown and Neglected Area of Justice,” in Handbook of Criminology, ed. Daniel Glaser (Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing Company, 1974), 777-848.

If I could only assign one piece on jails, this would be it. Mattick was a historically-minded scholar-activist who was regarded as “the architect of jail reform in Illinois,” a turn he took after working as assistant warden at Cook County Jail (full disclosure: Mattick is the focus of one of my dissertation chapters). In light of his legacy, this is a culminating expression of Mattick’s expertise. Mattick addressed the differences between prisons and jails, the history of American jails, the state of American jails in the 1970s (“if cleanliness is next to godliness, most jails lie securely in the province of hell” p.802), and the limits of jail reform in light of history. I would choose this over other works from the 1970s and the jail chapter in The Oxford History of the Prison

John Irwin, The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

This book remains the seminal criminal justice text on jails that depicts the San Francisco jail in the 1980s. The University of California has a new edition out with a great forward by Jonathan Simon. Irwin’s perspective was informed by his own experience with incarceration, which makes him an interesting historical actor in his own right.

John P. Walsh, The Culture of Urban Control: Jail Overcrowding in the Crime Control Era (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013).

This book is prohibitively expensive, but I think a selected chapter could provide students with helpful scholarly framing that would compliment contemporary news articles on jail issues at Rikers Island and Cook County Jail.

Loïc Wacquant, “Class, race & hyperincarceration in revanchist America,” Daedalus 139, no. 3 (Summer 2010), 74-90.

Wacquant situates contemporary jails within the wider criminal justice system and neoliberalism; I think this article is fine distillation of ideas he delves into in Prisons of Poverty. This article provides some interesting concepts for students to unpack.

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