talking with the chicago reporter about jail deaths.

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.

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finding winston moore: the original psychologist jail warden.

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:

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.”[1]

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.

[1] Rick Soll, “Winston Moore: Tough not enough,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 8, 1973, 50.

how your local jail became hell.

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.

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speaking engagement: MLK at ESP.

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Eastern State Penitentiary is my favorite tourist destination in Philadelphia. I got a membership because I take all of my out-of-town visitors there. Last semester, I took my students to ESP on a field trip. The header photo for my website is a picture I took at ESP. I have admired their recent efforts to highlight contemporary prison issues in their presentation of the past through the Searchlight series. I am elated and honored to be a part of their celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. King on Monday, January 21st. Join me and actor Len Webb for a reading and discussion of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

WHYY’s coverage of the MLK events at ESP:

From the ESP website:

We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and the 50th anniversary of his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, with special readings offered several times throughout the weekend.

Why did the civil rights leaders of the 1960s choose jail time to demonstrate their plight? How did Dr. King’s letter—written in the margins of a newspaper and smuggled out of Birmingham Jail—create a pivotal moment in the American civil rights movement?

Readings of the Letter:
Professional actors read Dr. King’s letter, followed by an informal Q&A on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at 11:30 and 2:30[and 3:45] each day. Free to the public. Tickets available online or at the door, subject to availability.

mass incarceration in america: advocacy, art, and the academy.

I am excited to be an organizer and speaker for a major event at Temple this fall. We are working hard to bring together top scholars, community members, artists, and activists for a day of rich conversation about the nature of America’s addiction to mass incarceration and what we might do to break it. You can find updates and further information about the event on our facebook page.
Mass Incarceration in America: Advocacy, Art, and the Academy
Conference and Teach-In
November 29, 2012 9-6 pm
Temple University: Tyler School of Art
Mass incarceration has been growing at an alarming rate throughout the United States for over thirty years. Although crime rates nationwide are falling, the industry of mass incarceration continues to expand. As we spend more on prisons than we do on education, the purpose of this teach-in is to educate the general public on the impact and stigma of criminalization this industry has on our

urban communities, public health, and sentencing laws.

Through illustrated lectures by nationally renowned scholars and inmates including Dan Berger, Todd Clear, Ernie Drucker, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Marie Gottschalk, Kay Harris, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Donna Murch, Melanie Newport, Raphael Sperry, Heather Ann Thompson, Tyrone Werts, and Mumia Abu Jamal, we will discuss the criminalization of communities, and the impact of that criminalization, through a range of perspectives grounded in the interests of Temple’s local communities.

This free day-long event will also highlight the implications of race, prison labor, and private industry within this important national debate.

Temple Contemporary has selected a number of works by artists including Aja Beech, Mary DeWitt, Laurie Jo Reynolds, Jackie Sumell, and Herman Wallace to complement and contribute to the day’s discussions.

Mass Incarceration in America: Advocacy, Art, and the Academy was initiated by Temple Contemporary’s Temple University Programming Advisory Council and is supported by Tyler School of Art, Temple University’s Architecture Department, and The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Temple University.