summer update.

I’m blogging less! Some people say blogs are dead? As I get deeper into my book project, Community of the Condemned: Chicago and the Transformation of the American Jail, I’ve been molding my research into the necessary academic forms. This has meant less in the way of public-facing work to share here. Nonetheless, a sample of what I’ve been up to this summer:


  • I visited the Moving Image Archive at Indiana University, Bloomington to watch Community of the Condemned, the 1950s television show about Cook County Jail from which my book borrows its title. Definitely one of the best archive visits I’ve had.

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  • I presented a paper at LAWCHA entitled “‘Making up for Earlier Deficiencies’: Worker Retraining in Chicago’s Detention Facilities,” a broad overview of prisoner work programs at both the Chicago House of Correction and Cook County Jail.

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  • UConn-Hartford is moving to a new campus in downtown Hartford. After August 7, you’ll find me and my classes in the Hartford Times Building. Looking forward to engaging with our new community downtown!

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fall 2017 courses at UConn Hartford.

Registration is open for my courses at UConn-Hartford’s new downtown campus next fall. Both courses will meet in the Hartford Times Building.

If you are enrolled for either class, I would love to hear from you regarding topics you might like to cover in class. Both of my courses are open to all UConn students from all majors and provide opportunities to choose your own topics to explore. I have provided links to books you are required to purchase as they can be found at a lower cost online (I provide these well in advance so you can shop around). Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have questions about either course.Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 11.49.44 AM

Required Books:

Yohuru Williams, Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement
Michael Stewart Foley, Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980sScreen Shot 2017-03-21 at 11.48.18 AM.png

[UPDATE, 8/6: This course is full]

Required Books:

Audra Wolfe, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America
Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

spring 2017 book lists.

I am offering two classes at UConn Hartford this spring. If you are a potential student or a student enrolled in either course, feel free to contact me if you have questions about the assigned texts. All of these books are available used, as ebooks, or for rental through retailers such as Amazon. Shop around.

History 1502- US Since 1877


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (Brief Fourth Edition) (Vol. 2) ISBN: 9780393920345 [Seagull edition is ok too as long as it is a Fourth Edition, Vol. 2]

as the Foner textbook is coming out with a new edition soon, I strongly discourage you from buying a brand new copy.

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

History 3098- Policing and Imprisonment in the US since 1877


Kali Nicole Gross, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America

Miroslava Chavez-Garcia, States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court

as this is an upper-division course, we will also read scholarly articles and other sources available on HuskyCT.


dissertation abstract.

As I hit the home stretch with dissertation revisions, here’s a window into my findings from Jail America: The Reformist Origins of the Carceral State. 

[UPDATE] 8/17: My dissertation is under embargo– i.e. not available for dissemination–  while I find a publisher for the book version of it. If you would like to know more about my work, contact me directly.

As policymakers reckon with how the United States became a global leader in imprisonment after World War II, scholars have suggested that the roots of this phenomenon are in conservative backlash to postwar crime or in federal intervention in American cities during the urban crisis. However, historians and social scientists have overlooked the role of jails in the origins story of mass incarceration. Through a close historical examination of Cook County Jail in Chicago, my research addresses how policymakers used reform claims to rationalize the growth of large urban jails from the 1950s through the 1990s. As a massive state building project, mass incarceration was contingent upon branding urban jails as providers of social services and rehabilitation, even though there was proof that jails failed to provide such services and as jail policymakers were, in fact, building bigger and more brutal jails. While activists, lawyers, and prisoners challenged dehumanizing conditions and state violence, jailers responded to public scrutiny by assuring the public that Cook County Jail was in the process of becoming a space that was beneficial to people awaiting trial there. This project locates the emergence of the carceral crisis in the battle to transform America’s jails.

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!



thinking about the lego police.

Going home for Christmas is always a good way to stretch my brain. When I arrived, I was happy to find that my nieces have reached the age where they can really play with Legos. We have an epic family Lego pile. Since my brother and I combined our stashes some twenty years ago, I like to remind the girls that the Legos belong to everybody. I do this even as I go through picking out my favorite pieces, trying to make sure that they don’t notice my pile of Lego computers, suitcases, and favored building components from the Paradisa collection of 1992 (rare! I now live in Toy Story).

The impulses of girlhood are strong, and my nieces had dutifully, albiet contentiously, picked out and divided all of the female minifigures. It seemed like a good gift-giving opportunity, so I decided a shared gift could diversify our minifigure holdings. I settled on the “fairytale and historic minifigures set” mostly because it came with mermaids and lots of ladylegos, but also because it didn’t come with any police.

I have really mixed feelings about the Lego Police.

I think police toys are weird. It’s kind of like police procedurals- I don’t really find them entertaining because they are too much analytical work. Generally, I just can’t enjoy them, I have to think about what they mean. It can’t be helped- crime and punishment are the focus of my intellectual life. I accept my discomfort with Lego police sets because they naturalize the carceral state as well, just another part of life in the Lego City. Usually I ignore that because hey, I hardly ever think about Legos.

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Something curious has happened to me recently: my revulsion toward the Lego police sets gave way to fascination. The Lego offenders (notably, there is no court) have scruffy, unshaven faces that are variably smirking, scowling, or smiling toothlessly. Lacking the gender parity of other Lego city careers, Lego criminals are all male. The narrative of the sets- as seen in the video here– is that Lego museum robbers will inevitably be caught by a complex Lego police apparatus that includes, a semi-truck (“police command center”), “prisoner transport,” a police helicopter, dogs, forest police station (which comes with a bear!), and so on. The pièce de résistance, however, is the Lego police station.

I’ll be honest with you: in spite of myself, I really want the Lego police station.

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It comes with a booking area for mugshots! A coffee pot and watercooler! A Lego policewoman with an adorable bob! The garage doors open! The cells even have toilets!

The cells even have toilets?

That brings me back to earth. Even the Duplo police set, intended for 2-5 year olds, includes jail cells with toilets. Recently I read Joseph F. Fishman’s 1923 account of American jails, Crucibles of Crime. He writes:

“At Key West, as in so many jails of the country, the loathsome ‘night bucket,’ as it is politely termed, is used. The night bucket, which we have met so often, is used in jails- there are hundreds of them- which have no toilet facilities or plumbing in the cells. They are emptied each morning. As they are made of iron and last for many years, and as so many jailers are not particularly concerned that they be kept clean as possible, the atmosphere of the jail will be apparent” (p. 84-85).

At the very least, the jails of 2012 have toilets. The Lego jail cell toilets, trivial as they may seem, are a strange piece of evidence in the historic contingency of the carceral state– every facet of the Lego police set reflects some aspect of the carceral state that was wanted, created, built, reformed. The Lego sets reflect the way many in the public would like to think about the criminal justice system- that it is tidy, humane, just, non-violent. The Lego police sets are the criminal justice system as we would like to see it. No guns, no victims, no courts, no activists. Just a few silly bandits who will get what they deserve at the hands of righteous police with a lot of cool crime-fighting tools.

But I can’t overlook the comforting aspect of the Lego police sets:

They can be dismantled.

i choose my cards.

Clinton stared for a few seconds. “I choose my cards,” she said firmly. “I choose them. I play them to the best of my ability. Move on to the next hand.”

-Gail Collins, “Hillary’s Next Move,” The New York Times, November 10, 2012.

The state of affairs for women in America is far from perfect, but women like Secretary Hillary Clinton and Justice Sonia Sotomayor give me hope.