dissertation description: cook county jail and the local origins of mass incarceration (a history).

Since the last time I posted an abstract about my dissertation “Cook County Jail and the Local Origins of Mass Incarceration,”* my understandings of the jail’s history have changed quite a bit. A dissertation can be a moving target, so I am using this exercise to nail it down at this moment in time.


The question at the heart of this study is: How did Cook County Jail get so big? Its transition from a one-room frontier jail to a 10,000 urban mega-jail didn’t happen over night. My dissertation tells the story of how incremental changes to policy, challenges to the status quo, public conversations over conditions and politics, and ultimately, the intervention of the federal judiciary and the Justice Department, contributed to the expansion of Cook County Jail over the course of 160 years. Cook County Jail’s growth was not inevitable, nor was it uncontested. The central contention of this dissertation is that local politics, federal intervention, and changing beliefs about its purposes fueled the rise of America’s largest single-site jail.

I am particularly interested in how local and national contexts shaped the jail and informed the policy options that people thought they had. As such, this dissertation offers new perspectives on the progressive moment, urban political machines, rehabilitation penology, civil rights, and the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, and the intensification of a punitive culture. The story of Cook County Jail includes a diverse cast of characters of progressive reformers, notorious and unknown detainees and inmates, activists, sheriffs, wardens, guards, social workers, teachers, lawyers, journalists, and politicians—the men and women of all races and classes involved in making history at Cook County Jail.


This project is not a journalistic expose on contemporary conditions (it must be said!). Because of the limitations of available sources, and the lack of a comprehensive institutional history of the jail, this project tells the story of the jail from its establishment in the 1830s up to the completion of its pod-style units in the mid-1990s, with a majority of the chapters focusing on a period of intensive reform and growth from the late 1960s through the 1980s.

I cannot tell the whole story—that would be impossible and I would never finish. Sources that bring to light the experiences of incarcerated people held at Cook County Jail are scant; as such, this is primarily a political and institutional history though I tell the stories of incarcerated people where I can. Where possible, I identify how criminal justice policies external to the jail influenced or constrained its operations; I explore how policing, bail and bond, parole and probation, and court practices impacted the jail at different moments. My aim is to give historical perspective to policy conversations by exploring the logics of reform, punishment, oversight, and expansion at work in the jail over time.

The commentary on contemporary jail issues that you see on my blog is informed by the history of the jail, but the history of the jail is the focus of my academic work.


Much of my training is as a historian of politics and policy, which is why this is at heart the history of a public institution, policies that informed and shaped its history, and the politicians and employees who governed it. However, it is impossible to study a jail without considering its location and the people who lived and worked there. So as much as this is the story of jail politics, the methods of social history, labor history, urban history, and cultural history come into play throughout the dissertation as I endeavor to recreate the world of Cook County Jail.

This is primarily an archival project that draws on print sources that are either digitally available or accessible in libraries, museums, and public and private archives.

I am interested in talking to people off the record about the jail, but because of the world we live in, this project does not include an oral history project.

If you have questions about my project, please contact me at melanie [dot] newport [at] temple [dot] edu.

*the title is subject to change. Suggestions are welcome!




One thought on “dissertation description: cook county jail and the local origins of mass incarceration (a history).

  1. Pingback: so you’d like to add jails to your prison history syllabus. | Melanie Newport

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