fall 2017 courses at UConn Hartford.

Registration is open for my courses at UConn-Hartford’s new downtown campus next fall. 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

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.

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 6.42.35 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 6.42.45 PM

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.

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.