the jail construction conundrum.

philly.com 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. http://www.library.unt.edu/gpo/acir/Reports/policy/a-94.pdf

[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. https://www.ncjrs.gov/app/abstractdb/AbstractDBDetails.aspx?id=651

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.

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.

Kelly Lytle Hernández, “Hobos in Heaven: Race, Incarceration, and the Rise of Los Angeles, 1880–1910,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 3, 410–447.

I have a soft spot for hobos in history (Hans Mattick, below, was a teenage hobo) and this article does not disappoint. Hernández connects the “white scourge” of hobos to LA’s first jail crisis.

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.

Myrl Anderson, Jail Administration (Springfield, IL: 1957).

A mid-century jail manual from a federal prisons administrator. If you like that kind of thing.

If you know of a great interwar or postwar / mid-century jail text, let me know- I am working on my contribution but I would love to hear about more research on that front. You may find especially great primary sources on the career of Anna Kross, the woman who ran Rikers during the 1950s and 1960s.

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.

UPDATE: 11/18/2016: “How Not to Build a Jail,” an article on the DC Jail from Reason would be interesting paired with news articles from the 1970s or selections from Goldfarb’s book. Also looking forward to City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernández, coming out in April 2017 from the Justice, Power, and Politics series at UNC Press.