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.

illustrating chapter five: winston moore and the cook county jail master plan.

Today I am presenting one of my dissertation chapters at the Penn DCC workshop. When I first came across the story of Winston Moore, I was considering doing a project that looked at multiple jails across the country. After reading his story during my newspaper research, I knew I had to do a case study of Cook County Jail. Here are some images that represent chapter 5 cross-posted from my twitter feed.

Abstract for Chapter 5:
What role did federal grants through the War on Crime play in the expansion of county jails? During the 1970s, federal grants through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration created incentives for local governments to choose expansion over other available policy options. At Cook County Jail in Chicago, federal funding both incentivized construction and fostered the institutional growth of a troubled facility that required monitoring by the federal courts into the twenty-first century.
During the 1970s, Cook County Jail administrators used new federal grants to plan and initiate the massive addition of 3,500 beds to the jail. Even as activists used federal funds for bail reform and jail education programs to reduce overcrowding and the county’s reliance on pre-trial detention, Cook County politicians used the same grant sources to build a bigger jail.
At the heart of this project was the jail’s first master plan, which advanced planners’ assumptions that new, efficient buildings would rehabilitate inmates and that rising crime among African Americans would necessitate long-term jail growth. At the helm of this project was Winston Moore, the nation’s first African-American warden. However, because Cook County failed to allocate sufficient manpower resources and repair existing facilities, the federally funded expansion failed to improve conditions for pre-trial detainees and inmates at the jail. The shortcomings of the implementation of the master plan reveals the ways in which local politics undermined the LEAA’s corrections reform agenda. As a result, the federal government sued the jail for using LEAA funds to implement racial segregation in its new facilities and set off a wave of class action suits that shaped the jail’s expansionist politics in coming decades.

Why I tweet so much about this chapter is a subject for another day.

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.

map of historical locations of cook county jail.

I have been slow to get around to the digital humanities- to be honest, traditional research methods have given me plenty to do as I charge forward on this dissertation. However, as I meet yesterday with a colleague who was seeing my project with new eyes, I realized that she, and I, needed a map we could use to show the past locations of the Cook County Jail, the Bridewell workhouse, and the House of Correction (the latter two were institutions operated by the City of Chicago). So I made a map, which you can access here. You can click the red tabs for dates and citations.

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jail house disc jockey.

I sometimes try to describe the sensations of archival work to my junior and senior writing seminars at Temple. As I plan a lengthy summer research trip to Chicago thanks to the Platzman Fellowship at the University of Chicago, these sensations are on my mind again. Sometimes there’s the musty smell of old paper, the way tattered newspapers disintegrate if not handled gently, the sense of dread that comes with knowing I can’t get through all of the boxes. But the feeling I love best, and savor the most, is the feeling of opening a folder and being delighted by what sits on top.

Image

That was the case with this article from a tiny magazine- my guess was that it was from a copy of Jet in the late fifties. It was in the first folder I opened of the Hans Mattick papers at the Chicago History Museum. This was the kind of document that made me smile as I took it in all at once. There was a radio station at Cook County Jail? The red type. Who was Tom Yen-lo Wong? He was so lost in the moment, totally consumed in what he was doing. Why was he in jail?

I haven’t found any other evidence that describes the radio station at Cook County Jail, or where it fit in the scope of other programs at the time. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that tells me more about the life of Tom Yen-lo Wong. But that sensation- of learning that somebody lived, that they made a difficult situation meaningful, that things in the jail were a little different than I thought they were- that is what I love about my work.

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

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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.

a brief history of class action lawsuits at cook county jail.

Big news lately- the Uptown People’s Law Center and MacArthur Justice Center are bringing suit in federal court with allegations of brutality in Cook County Jail. Brutality is an understatement- you can read the complaint, Hudson v. Preckwinckle, here. (here is a link to the Chicago Tribune‘s coverage)

A sampling of the complaint:

“A culture of brutality and lawlessness infects the jail and forces these men, all of whom are awaiting trial, to live under a constant risk of life threatening violence.

Officers slam people to the floor, stomp, kick and punch them—often while the individuals are handcuffed and shackled. After beating shackled men until they lose consciousness, officers will drag them by their chains, banging their heads on steel doors or allowing their heads to slam into the concrete floor. Officers often violently attack people living with mental illness—generally for behaviors that are manifestations of mental illness or in response to an individual’s request for a mental health evaluation. People who appear to be in active psychosis are frequently brutalized by mobs of officers for alleged “non-compliance.”
Officers also order the men to attack, beat and stomp each other—instigating violence between the very individuals that they are supposed to protect.”

Cook County Jail is certainly not the only American jail in crisis- I have previously noted that county governments, sheriffs, and jail administrators across the United States are playing the blame game when it comes to abhorrent conditions and overcrowding. Just this week, the mismanagement of LA County Jails has been contextualized in an important piece of reporting by Los Angeles magazine. The allegations at Cook County Jail are by no means unique in our moment of national jail crisis. But it’s important to remember that this particular institution has a especially complicated and long-lasting relationship with the federal courts system. My forthcoming dissertation deals with these suits in greater detail, but I thought it would be useful to briefly highlight two previous federal court cases at the jail. If you have questions or would like to know more about my research, please contact me at melanie [dot] newport [at] temple [dot] edu.

The first class action suit brought over conditions* at Cook County Jail came in 1968 as the case Inmates v. Tierney. Originally brought as a class action suit by a group of federal prisoners being detained at the jail, the group of inmates was expanded to include local inmates who shared an interest in improving the jail’s conditions. This suit was largely driven by eight deaths at the jail in 1967, which culminated in a series of damning reports by the John Howard Association and a Cook County Grand Jury that alleged racial segregation, violence, negligent and non-existent medical care. This was one of the first inmate class action suits brought on behalf of jail inmates, whose interests had previously been ignored because of the brief nature of most jail incarcerations and a wanting judicial interest in jail conditions that lagged behind behind prisons. Interestingly, this case was dropped because the jail claimed to have implemented so many of the grand jury’s suggested reforms- not least of all, firing the warden- that the Inmates lost a lot of ground in the case. Dropping the case meant that there was no enforcement mechanism for further reforms. During the 1970s, state inspections of the jail became more common, as did class action suits. Inmates v. Tierney, along with the scandals that drove the case, manifested a public expectation of outside oversight over jail conditions.

Another major case was Duran v. Elrod, resolved as Duran v. Sheehan in 1982. Interestingly, after adding 1,000 beds during the 1970s, the Sheriff had proclaimed “mission accomplished” at the jail. The early 80s brought a guard strike and a suit over continued overcrowding at the jail as it tried to keep pace with the rapid expansion of policing under the War on Drugs and punitive changes to sentences and bail. The outcome of Duran v. Sheehan was a consent decree that provided oversight over the jail’s population by the John Howard Association. To meet the demands of the decree, the county experimented with ROR bonds, which allowed individuals to be released while awaiting trial without bail. When the public rejected this solution because of a “tough on crime” mentality, the county expanded on a mind-blowing construction project that added 7,000 beds to the jail during the 1980s and early 1990s. Duran v. Sheehan encouraged a culture of accountability at the jail, although with a limited focus on population.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the utility of class action suits. As the usprisonculture blog noted recently,

the prison IS violence. Until, we are honest about this fact, nothing can end the routine violation of the humanity and dignity of prisoners. We cannot “reform” prison brutality because once again the prison IS violence in and of itself. We must end prisons to end the violence. It’s the only way.

There are so many ways that class action suits fall short- Inmates v. Tierney was dropped and no one was held accountable; Duran v. Sheehan helped to make the jail as one of the largest correctional institutions in the world. Reform is a limited paradigm. A letter I found in my research further emphasizes this point, and even anticipated the outcome of Duran. In 1974, Alvin Bronstein, director of the ACLU’s Prisons and Jails project wrote,

“I am not very hot for cases that aim to imrpove conditions for pre-trial detainees. They do not address the issue of why pre-trial detainees are in jail in the first place, and too often the result is the building of a bigger and better jail. Nothing changes.”**

I relate to this sense of hopelessness. Change at the jail is slow, and many of the outcomes the inmate class sought to see remedied in 1968 remain to be seen. And yet, criminal suits and FBI investigations at jails are rare. Cook County politicians engaged in the blame game are dallying in shifting the onus for reform from the sheriff to the County Board President in unprecedented ways. After 45 years, class action suits remain the most promising mechanism incarcerated people can use to press reform. We need the federal courts because Cook County has continuously failed to show up for its citizens.

*as far as I’m aware at this stage in my research.

**Alvin J. Bronstein, “Letter to William J. McNally,” June 18, 1974, ACLU Illinois Division Papers, Box 648, Folder 2, University of Chicago Special Collections,  Chicago, IL.

it’s a crime not to get involved.

Here’s a great vintage commercial for the PACE Institute at Cook County Jail. Its central mission was providing elementary and secondary education- it was accredited through the local school district. This commercial emphasizes the job training, which as I understand it, was a fairly temporary element of their programming. The 1970s were a time when the jail dramatically increased its public profile through programming, perhaps most famously through concerts that brought B.B. King and other stars to perform there. It’s interesting to me that this commercial ran in a moment of deindustrialization- the sub-text here is that in spite of that shift, access to industrial jobs could keep people out of jail. In a neoliberal world where jails and prisons house many excess workers who can’t find a place in the legitimate economy, it’s hard to imagine a commercial like this on television today.

Transcript:

“It’s called a mug shot. Next to being the victim of a crime, it’s the most degrading experience there is. Did you know that a lot of the guys in Cook County Jail have been there ten times, and a lot more would have been through it again if it hadn’t have been for PACE. What’s PACE? It’s an educational organization working inside the walls of Cook County Jail. Teaching inmates how to do something more useful than jimmying locks or picking pockets. They help the men develop skills and trades that will help them find jobs on the outside. The fact is that only twenty-three percent of PACE graduates have returned for another mug shot. Compare that to seventy-five percent overall. And that means PACE is doing something for the victims of crime too. Write PACE, Cook County Jail. The way I see it, when you’ve got something like PACE that works, it’s a crime not to get involved.” (1978 PSA, via fuzzymemories.tv)

Here’s a screenshot from a 1981 report that shows the scope of PACE’s programs.

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