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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
“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.