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.]

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