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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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.