soul murder and the American jail.

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.

Soul murder.

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.

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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

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 11.27.02 AM

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.

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?

questions about a jail reform discourse that centers on the mentally ill.

Image

screenshot from http://www.cookcountysheriff.com/

As has been noted elsewhere, we are in the midst of a prison reform moment. This is great! This is what we’ve been fighting for.* Still, I’ve been a bit troubled by the way the conversation on jails is starting to focus on the mentally ill. Don’t get me wrong. County and city jails were not designed to hold mentally ill people. They do not have adequate staffs to support mentally ill populations. The incarceration of people who are mentally ill and can only get access to resources through jails is abhorrent. I agree with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart that “Jails and prisons are the new insane asylums.” I agree with The New York Times that “The mayhem inside city jails is especially striking given the historic declines in rates of homicide and other violent crimes outside of them.” Are America’s mentally ill suffering in jails? Yes. Of course. This is not a question for me. I am glad to see that the media is finally paying attention to an issue that scholars and corrections officials have long known about (this article is a good starting point).

But, still, I find this emergent discourse on jail reform problematic and unsettling for a number of reasons. I have lots of questions and few answers.

1. What are we asking for when we talk about jail reform and the mentally ill?

If we take the mentally ill out of jails and put them somewhere else, do we really believe that will we have less violent jails, or smaller jails? If we provide adequate treatment for the mentally ill in jails to replace mental institutions, are we creating a new and disturbing role for local jails? Are we arguing for a reinstatement of institutionalization? If we accept that deinstitutionalization was problematic, how do we create new institutions and new perimeters for institutionalization that don’t repeat the damage done to the mentally ill in the past? Are we willing to fund these institutions? Are we willing to advance the notion present in the media that all mentally ill people are violent, or potentially violent? Do we want to pay higher taxes so that our counties or states can be custodians of these populations, or so that the federal government can expand Medicaid and other services? Do we expect jail reform for the mentally ill to be a panacea? Are the mentally ill pawns in a larger conversation about the inadequacy of government to respond to social problems?

2. How do we talk about jail reform with regard to those who aren’t mentally ill?

When we talk about jail reform for the mentally ill, are we erasing the vast majority of people in jails who aren’t mentally ill? Are we perpetuating the belief that people who aren’t mentally ill deserve to be in jails, particularly as they await trial? When we focus on the mentally ill, do we overlook the fact that jails weren’t designed to house anyone for a long time? Does this focus lead us away from simple, common-sense solutions that can dramatically reduce the jail population, such as bail reform for people awaiting trial?

3. When we focus on the mentally ill, how are we talking about jail staff?

When we talk about  jail guards involved in brutality- either as victims or perpetrators- are we comfortable with the fact that corrections officers are among the lowest paid public employees? Are we willing to acknowledge that jail staff have a right to protect themselves in an incredibly dangerous work environment? Are we going to provide better support- psychological, medical, and social- for jail staff who bear the burden of negotiating the jail crisis on a daily basis? Are we investing in the notion that better training for jail staff can prevent violence, rather than a dramatic reorganization of the criminal justice system? Do we think that adding more psychological services in jails- and in turn, paying to attract qualified staff- would solve the problem? What happens when we think about jail reform as a labor issue?

Again, I don’t think jails should house the mentally ill. But I think if we are going to let the conversation about the mentally ill drive conversations about jail reform, we- activists, citizens, scholars, public officials- need to be clear about what we are asking for and the potential unintended consequences. In a neoliberal political culture that favors disinvestment from public institutions, what are the real possibilities for dealing with this issue? I have yet to see compelling, realistic solutions factor into these conversations.

Sustaining the jail crisis is expensive. Jail reform is expensive. What price are we willing to pay?

*even if the prison vogue reminds me a bit of Lee Bernstein’s analysis of the 70s reform moment in his fantastic book America is the Prison… another post for another day.

who’s to blame for jail problems?

Not long ago, a great story “Do we have the right people locked up?” from the Chicago Reader came across my Twitter feed. As a historian writing the recent history of Cook County Jail, I was disappointed to see that Cook County politicians are still hashing through the same questions they were dealing with forty years ago. The piece is worth reading on its own merits, but I particularly loved the graphic that illustrated the piece, part of which I screenshotted: Image

I took for granted that this genre of blame story was a Cook County thing. However, when my brother texted me this story from my hometown newspaper, the Tacoma News Tribune, “Tacoma’s shift away from jail brings hard time to Pierce County,” it occurred to me that the “who’s to blame” story is a common trope of jail reporting and editorials nationwide. Indeed, Googling “who is to blame for jail problems?” brought up a host of stories from the last month or two, from less populated areas in Alabama, Arkansas, and East Tennessee, to metropolitan areas such as Akron, Portland, ME, Spokane, WA, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, to name a few.

Some of the actors and factors to blame:

-prescription drug arrests

-unstable funding from states

– low staffing levels

-systemic problems surrounding parole boards

-former sheriffs

-county boards

-judges

-current sheriffs

-rival jails siphoning off inmates

-the recession

-debt payments on jails

These are not new problems, and all of them, I think, point to the problem that county jails sit at the nexus of multi-jurisdictional crime control efforts that involve too many stakeholders and too little accountability. For much of the twentieth century, counties tolerated jail problems as the status quo. It the 1960s, counties began to turn to states and the federal government for guidance and funding, or were forced to make changes by state jail inspectors and judicial intervention. The outcome of these shifts was that counties had to expand jail facilities beyond their governing capacities in order to keep jails in scale with the rest of the expanding criminal justice system. Few counties in the country can actually afford to operate their jails to meet current demands of policing; few counties have the expertise to manage large jail populations or to make sound long-term jail policy. The lessons of the past thirty years are clear: too many counties have used construction as a substitute for reforms to bail and bonds, policing, mental health, drug rehabilitation, education, job programs, and community corrections. Small time politicos can point fingers all they want, but change won’t come until counties shift their focus away from who’s to blame for problems in jail to meaningful and far-reaching reform and expansion of the services counties provide to citizens.

another source for online jail reviews.

another source for online jail reviews.

I hadn’t thought to look up jails on Google Maps until I found myself looking at the street view for Men’s Central Jail in LA. It’s no Yelp, but it’s still jarring to come across jail reviews when I don’t expect them. I still can’t describe why I find jail reviews difficult to understand- I suppose it’s because I think of online reviews as evidence of consumption. I also like to think that if I post an online review somebody associated with a place will read it. For some reason, I don’t tend to think of jails as sites of consumption or places that really mind if you think the food sucks. Perhaps the Consumer’s Republic extends to the most undemocratic spaces? Or is it that the democracy of the internet public allows anyone to write a review- as long as you are out of jail and have internet access?

Worth noting that not all of the dots are jails. Some are juvenile detention centers, others are sheriffs departments, some are historic sites. One of the dots in Wyoming is a dump.

“we can and must make it something else.”

I am occasionally surprised to encounter beautiful writing in my work. This quote comes from a 1945 essay in Prison World entitled “Jails: Yesterday and Today” by Leon T. Stern, then Secretary of Pennsylvania Committee on Penal Affairs of The Public Charities Association. An elegant reminder of Pennsylvania’s strong tradition of abolitionism and some of the same questions that face us today.

“The jail is the proto-prison from which all our local penal institutions have grown. We have called it jail, house of correction, workhouse, county prison, city prison, county penitentiary. It is always being attacked, always being abolished and demolished for its sins against the human spirit. Reformed it rises from its own rubble, flourishes briefly as a newly discovered institution, and soon is a jail again. It seems to grow of itself alone. The jail is made not of steel and stone but of our hates, our fears, our defenses and is destroyed and remade by our compassions when its iniquities become too great. When we have attained true justice the day envisioned by Charles Dickens may come, and the doors of the jails will be barred as firmly from the outside as we now bar them from the inside. Jail gates still close avidly on all we can herd and crowd through them.”

 

“The jail has not  been  abolished.  When we recall that ten times as many men enter the local prisons as find their way into state prisons and reformatories, the difficulties of abolition of the county jails become apparent. We can depopulate it, we can decrease the use of it; but we are not as yet prepared to have it disappear completely. There may be “something that does not love a wall.” But as long as we are not prepared to substitute completely other methods of treatment for reformation through imprisonment (discovered so victoriously by the great torchbearers of the past), it cannot fully ’abolish’ the jail. We can and must make it something else.”

“The waitstaff were mongrels!” or, jails on yelp.

While teaching at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility last summer, I noticed that I could check-in at the prison on Foursquare (from the parking lot- no phones in the prison, duh). I wondered why someone would do that- it seemed in poor taste, if anything because after enough “check-ins” one could become the “Mayor” of Garden State. But then, almost everyone coming into the prison is either an employee, service provider, or a visitor, and “checking in” is something that one might do in naturalized spaces to say to friends “hey, I’m at work” or “I’m visiting so-and-so.” I never got that comfortable with working at the prison.

I was reminded of this today while doing some light Google research for a project on jails. As it turns out, there are a number of Yelp reviews for jails (google “jail site:yelp.com”). Unlike the detailed reviews one might find for a restaurant, many  of the “reviews” I found initially were written by people who had not actually been incarcerated, and nearly all were “reviews” for jails in California (prisons on Yelp yield a more diverse geography). I wondered if this is because more people in California use Yelp, or if they feel such strong law and order sentiment that they feel the need to express it in all possible corners of the internet.

Some examples:

From LA County Jail:Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.02.58 PM

 

 


Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.04.25 PM

 

Ok, so people were trying to be funny. Dig a little deeper, however, and you can find the voices of formerly incarcerated people giving voice to their experiences in the county jail.

From Cook County Jail:

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.03.44 PM

From LA County Jail:Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.03.23 PM

Interestingly, one person took the time to write about her experiences working at Cook County Jail. The combination of “they’re criminals, you can’t trust them!” and “;)” was a little much for me.Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.10.22 PM

Are these kinds of reviews standard for other public spaces and work spaces? Are the tone and tenor of these reviews something frequent Yelpers would find normal? Are there other unlikely places on the web that we might find such a diverse discourse about imprisonment?

federalism, prisoner rights, and realignment in California.

One of the small pleasures of each day is when the Stateline email comes through. Stateline is a round-up of state-focused news from the Pew Center on the States. I’ve been following correction realignment in California since the SCOTUS ordered a reduction to the state’s prison population in 2011. Realignment is a strange and captivating expression of the inconsistent dynamics of contemporary federalism. Today a story came through on the perceived outcomes of realignment.

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

If you aren’t familiar with realignment: California had too many bodies in its massive prison system. In Brown v. Plata (2011) the Court found that prison overcrowding was in violation of incarcerated peoples’ constitutional protections against “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Court ordered California to reduce its prison population. Rather than release a large number of non-violent offenders, California reconfigured its criminal justice system to send lesser offenders- as the Times says, those who committed “nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual offenses“- to county jails.

Today’s story from the San Francisco Chronicle begins with a significant caveat- there isn’t really much quantitative data, other than that the population numbers in state institutions are slowly going down, with scant changes to the overall population of the system (go here for weekly population figures). It’s worth noting that the Chronicle says the state is spending $6 billion dollars to alleviate the local strains of realignment, a high number given that its corrections budget is $9 billion dollars. I am guessing that the $6 billion includes preexisting state allocations to local jails, because otherwise is would make more fiscal sense to build more prisons.

There are some assumptions worth unpacking:

1. County jails provide more humane conditions.

A guiding assumption of realignment conflates reducing the prison population with a less “cruel and unusual punishment.” While the jails are arguably less crowded (the story shows jails having to undertake expansion projects), jails are generally absent the kind of programing and resources present in state correctional institutions. Counting local jails as equal to prisons, realignment does not account for the differences in the professionalization of jail and prison staff. While its up for debate whether  those differences are for good or ill, realignment does place the burden of humane punishment on population numbers. That’s a very low bar.

2. Devolution is good for local governments.

Brown said the different ways counties approach realignment is part of the beauty of returning control to local government.

“Some people want to see more alternative sanctions and rehabilitation programs, and in some areas that are more conservative, they like a more ‘lock ’em up’ philosophy,” Brown said. “Realignment is based on the idea of more local autonomy. … It’s not one size fits all.”

This was my favorite quote from the piece, because a federal intervention has led the state to local autonomy. This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, as Brown says, it can promote community corrections and rehabilitation in counties that what it. That does sound good!

But, on the other hand, it allows conservative areas opportunities for more punitive sanctions. That’s frightening to me. While I wouldn’t like to see more people in state prisons, the whole point of Brown v. Plata is that prisoners in state institutions have the protection of federal oversight. Those in county jails have much less access to the lobbying mechanisms that make cases like Brown v. Plata possible in the first place. Scattered across the state, it seems to me that it would be more difficult to have abuses remedied in jails across the state, and I would expect abuses to come with a massive influx in jail populations, if anything because that would lead to overcrowding and poorly trained new staff.

I would like to know more about how the money is being distributed to the counties. As the story notes, there is a lot of variability in how the realignment funds are spent in the state’s 58 counties. Variability raises some red flags, because it implies inconsistent standards.

3. Imprisonment in California state institutions curbs crime.

Republican critics are saying that realignment is leading to an uptick in crime. It’s funny to me that there are Republican critics. You’d think they would be excited for devolution, which was an ideal advanced by those two paragons of California Republicanism, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But I digress. The critics of realignment believe that California’s state prison system was doing an effective job of controlling crime. We know that states with high rates of crime have high incarceration rates (see page 5 of this Pew study). We also know that the experience of being incarcerated reduces wage earnings, life expectancy, social mobility and increases one’s chances to return to prison.

Interestingly, no critics from the left were cited. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has written,

What California needs is a true “realignment” (Governor Jerry Brown’s buzzword for reworking the state budget) of the prison system—away from mass incarceration and toward the many alternatives that are less expensive and more effective.