I will be giving a public talk at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics on July 13. It will address research I’ve conducted this summer as part of my fellowship with the Black Metropolis Research Consortium.
Excited to announce that next fall I will be joining the faculty of the University of Connecticut-Hartford as an Assistant Professor of US history. Thrilled to be apart of the UConn Department of History and the many exciting changes at the Hartford campus!
Thanks to Legal History Blog for including me in their hiring updates.
As I hit the home stretch with dissertation revisions, here’s a window into my findings from Jail America: The Reformist Origins of the Carceral State.
As policymakers reckon with how the United States became a global leader in imprisonment after World War II, scholars have suggested that the roots of this phenomenon are in conservative backlash to postwar crime or in federal intervention in American cities during the urban crisis. However, historians and social scientists have overlooked the role of jails in the origins story of mass incarceration. Through a close historical examination of Cook County Jail in Chicago, my research addresses how policymakers used reform claims to rationalize the growth of large urban jails from the 1950s through the 1990s. As a massive state building project, mass incarceration was contingent upon branding urban jails as providers of social services and rehabilitation, even though there was proof that jails failed to provide such services and as jail policymakers were, in fact, building bigger and more brutal jails. While activists, lawyers, and prisoners challenged dehumanizing conditions and state violence, jailers responded to public scrutiny by assuring the public that Cook County Jail was in the process of becoming a space that was beneficial to people awaiting trial there. This project locates the emergence of the carceral crisis in the battle to transform America’s jails.
In a pathbreaking series of talks on the psychological impact of slavery, “Soul Murder and Slavery,” historian Nell Irvin Painter asserts that considering soul murder might contribute to a “completeness of historians’ descriptions of American society.” Soul murder, she contends, is essential to a revisionist narrative of American history because it challenges us to acknowledge the far-reaching consequences of a culture that sanctioned the physical and emotional terrors of enslavement. “No matter how much American convention exempts whites from paying any costs for the enslavement of blacks, the implications of slavery did not stop at the color line,” Painter argues, “rather, slavery’s theory and praxis permeated the whole of slaveholding society.” (Painter, 9) Imagining slave personhood, she tells us, allows us to see the society slaves lived in, the injuries that slavery brought not just to individuals but nation. We can imagine the agency of slaves while still seeing clearly what slavery cost them (Painter, 12).
Leonard Shengold, quoting Henrick Ibsen, defines soul murder as “the destruction of the love of life in another human being.” Shengold, writing about his research on child abuse survivors, noted that his study was naturally limited to those who had experienced soul murder but not those “who ended up in the law, courts, hospitals, or morgues— whose souls, and sometimes bodies, have been fully murdered.”
Last July, I gathered with Chicagoans to grieve the death of Sandra Bland, a Chicagoland woman who died in police custody in Texas. Amidst questions of whether her death was the result of murder or suicide, one organizer pleaded, her voice breaking:
“I want them to stop killing us.”
Her words have been hanging on my heart ever since. My job as a historian is to think about the context that produced them.
As I revised my dissertation this semester, I came to realize in writing the history of jails— something that for me started out as a fantasy that I could write sterile, “objective” policy history of carceral institutions— I became a historian of state violence. After years of research, it shocked me to read the story all the way through, to see it all laid out. I tried not to engage with it too much; I thought it was just an emotional response that was my own, something I could tuck away when it came time to write. Over the course of my crime and punishment class this semester, my students challenged me to acknowledge the absolute relentlessness of the violence I write about. It shocked me to call the everyday governance of jails state violence. I danced around the idea of soul murder, with its implications of intentionality and willfulness, reluctant to engage what it means for the institution I study.
But my students persisted. “How do you deal with this?” they asked. I had to be honest with myself: In cataloguing the mass “destruction of the love of life” wrought within the walls of Cook County Jail, I have encountered devastation on a scale so unimaginable that I have wished for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help me do the work.
I have wished for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Can you appreciate how strange a sensation that is?
Like Painter, I share a degree of reticence about imposing psychological labels on people in the past. I do not presume to comprehend the traumatic effects of jail detention on the individual psyche or the extent of their ripple effects in families; that is not my area of expertise. But I do think that in looking at the historical contours of mass incarceration at Cook County Jail, we can come to imagine, in broad strokes, the degree to which soul murder was and is a central function of local governments.
Where do I begin? Maybe we start with the physical violence. With mentally ill inmates handcuffed to cell bars, left to defecate on the floors? People being served food so putrid that they would rather go on hunger strike? Beatings from corrections officers and wardens that yielded broken arms, people being kicked in the head by those charged with their safety? Rape and murder among the jail population whose humanity has been degraded at every turn?
Maybe it happened decades ago; maybe it happened last week.
What if we look to the psychological? The slow and steady decay of family bonds over the course of a long detention? The fear and weariness that comes from being so controlled, so limited in one’s range of options and movement? What if we acknowledge the sensation of being handcuffed or being deprived of loving touch? What of solitary confinement, the practice of putting people in closets devoid of stimulation in order to produce obedience, compliance, a broken heart and a broken spirit?
Maybe it happened decades ago; maybe it’s happening right now.
Or what if we just looked incarcerated people in the eyes? What if we noticed the pallor in their faces from the lack of sunlight and a sickening diet? What if we acknowledged the hurt and vulnerability? You don’t have to go far in a jail to see it.
When we say that at least an institution is not as bad as it was, does that mean we can outrun its legacy? Can we ignore traumas that are lasting and multi-generational, pains that are more likely to be secret than public, written on the spirit long after the bruises fade?
When we talk about reform, we pretend that we are dealing with institutions that are value-neutral; we assume that policy and law and institutional culture are surely changeable. Change over time is the central faith of the historian— my central faith as a historian. How do I make sense of an institution whose consistent mission has been to destroy? The rationalizations change, the tools change, the buildings change, the people change, but fundamentally, the outcome remains the same.
The Department of Justice will investigate the Chicago Police Department. This investigation is long overdue. The murder of Laquan McDonald, and so many others, is an affront to human dignity that undermines the democratic aspirations that our society is based upon. We cannot pretend, however, that the murder started or ended with Laquan McDonald or the Chicago Police Department. We cannot console ourselves in thinking that people who are not murdered in the course of their arrest access a pure and clean justice when they come before the courts or when they are sent to jail. To survive the police does not mean the killing stops. This is a system that takes, and takes, and takes.
Constitutional standards are but one way of measuring the impact an institution has on human subjectivities. The long and troubling history of Cook County Jail suggests that these standards are inadequate; the courts tell us there is space within “due process” and “cruel and unusual punishment” for physical, emotional, and spiritual violence. How much pain is too much? After over fifty years of scrutiny, the jail remains a tool of soul murder.
Cook County Jail, the Cook County Criminal Courts, and the Chicago Police Department have interconnected destinies. Even if one institution comes come to meet some low bar of standards, it will not erase their collective impact. To paraphrase Painter: The theory and praxis of soul murder in these institutions permeates the whole of our society.
The stakes are that high.
We must gain clearer understandings of who has been complicit in the use of the “destruction of the love of life” as a punishment for those who are presumed innocent and those found guilty. We must catalogue and testify. There must be accountability; it cannot come only from the DOJ. We cannot limit our focus to just one institution, but rather, we must investigate to the point that “the eyes of our eyes are opened” so that we can see how they have functioned together. We must reject the everyday acts of soul murder that take place in our names. Only then can we begin to comprehend the depth and breadth of the task of the transformation ahead.
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.]
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.
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
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.
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
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:
- PACE, the rehabilitation program Winston Moore helped establish
- a brief history of class action suits at Cook County Jail.
- sociologist and former assistant warden Hans Mattick, who was interviewed by the legendary Studs Terkel
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.”
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.
 Rick Soll, “Winston Moore: Tough not enough,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 8, 1973, 50.
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.
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.