Courtesy of Penn Press

“There is not a time in Chicago’s history where the city was home to large percentages of Black people, and in which they had a smoothly functioning relationship with the CPD,” according to historian Simon Balto. As he details, one of the main jobs of the Chicago Police Department throughout its history has been to saturate the Black South and West Sides, arrest massive numbers of people, and put them in the Cook County Jail. As a result, historian Melanie Newport writes in her forthcoming book, “For as long as there have been Black people in Chicago, they have been disproportionately represented in its jails.”

While Balto’s 2019 book Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power details the uniformly racist and oppressive history of policing in Chicago, Newport’s new book, This Is My Jail: Local Politics and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, provides an essential historical look at the racist function of the county jail in city governance. As of 2020, the population of the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC) was seventy-five percent Black and sixteen percent Latinx—a consequence, Newport writes, of “racist policing, high bails set by courts, and, perhaps most importantly, the politically contested, racialized ideas about what jails can do for people of color.”

Because these racially disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration have existed for the entire history of policing and jailing in Chicago, the demand to divest from policing and incarceration to facilitate investment in resources like housing, health care, and violence prevention programs is the focus of local organizers and community organizations. Instead, however, city leadership continues to pour more money into policing and incarceration, consistent with the historical insight that Newport provides—namely, that “Beliefs about the benevolent intentions of jailing… [have become] increasingly important strategies for laundering the illegitimacy of racist policing and judicial practices through other institutions.”

In the beginning of Chicago’s history as a city, as Newport describes, one of the most common justifications for jailing was rehabilitation. Today, the city has abandoned all pretense of rehabilitation in favor of warehousing people deemed a danger to society by racist police, prosecutors, and judges. However, throughout Chicago’s existence, the purpose of the city’s policing and jailing practices has remained the same: the control of primarily Black people, but also any other racial minority locked out of the formal job market and deemed undesirable to the smooth functioning of racial capitalism—from the Irish and other ethnic immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (before they assimilated into whiteness) to Black and brown communities today. “The modern jail,” Newport writes, “is a vestige of Jim Crow politics that has been continually reconfigured since Reconstruction.”

Further, Newport’s book demonstrates that, like it has with policing, the city has continuously attempted to “reform” its jails for their entire history, even though they have repeatedly failed to produce safety—both inside the jails and outside in the city of Chicago. Balto writes that “the history of police reform… is generally one of expanded police power and greater perceived legitimacy of the police. It is not one of police conduct being effectively regulated and constrained, at either the individual or the collective level.” Newport shows that the same can be said for jails: the history of jail reform is generally one of expanded jailer power and greater perceived legitimacy of jailing, not of jailer conduct being effectively regulated and constrained, at either the individual or collective level. This repeated failure of “reform” has resulted in the recent demands to divest from policing and incarceration. As Newport writes: “the relentless reform of jails and their position as institutions of perpetual harm is inextricable from the undeniable role of race and racism in the institutional and political development of jails.”

Cook County’s first jail was built in 1833, only three years after passage of the federal Indian Removal Act, which led to the expulsion of Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, and other Indigenous peoples from what became Illinois. At this time, the building of the jail was a significant departure from previous community-based practices where people who knew each other didn’t incarcerate their neighbors for lengthy periods before trial. However, the jail quickly became an essential component of racial capitalism. For example, Newport details the story of Edwin Heathcock, a free Black man who was arrested and jailed in Chicago in 1842 for being “unconstitutionally free” and then sold at an auction across the street from the jail. As Newport writes, “The criminalization of Edwin Heathcock’s freedom demonstrated a pattern that would play out again and again as the jail served as a backdrop for white elites to debate whether Black people could be trusted with their liberty.” 

Newport details another essential function that the jail played under racial capitalism: the incarceration of labor organizers, such as the four Chicago anarchists executed for their alleged role in the Haymarket uprising. One prisoner quoted by Newport said, “The entire concept for having prisons and holding prisoners… is to replace the eroded industrial and manufacturing economy with the evergrowing industry of warehousing men and women.”

Since the beginning of incarceration as a practice, progressives and leftists have pushed back against the idea that it produces safety. For example, Newport details lawyer Clarence Darrow’s speech at Cook County Jail in 1902 in which he stated that “a jail is evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their own greed.” Presaging the abolitionist arguments of today, Darrow said that the way for society to “abolish crime and criminals” was to “make fair conditions of life. Give men a chance to live.” In a prescient critique of prison and police reform, Chicago social worker Edith Abbott argued that the project of reform was doomed because “any humanitarian legislation that is left to a hundred and one different local authorities to enforce will simply not be enforced.” After decades of prison and police reform attempts, Abbott’s criticism has proven to be warranted as police and jail guards frequently refuse to follow any of their newly “reformed” policies. The “code of silence” then ensures that these refusals are rarely detected or addressed. 

Chicago’s Black population increased dramatically during the first and second Great Migration, throughout the early and middle part of the twentieth century, and any pretense at reform or rehabilitation was abandoned as the Black jail and prison populations skyrocketed alongside exponentially growing police budgets and presence in Black neighborhoods. Newport writes that “the heterogeneity of Cook County Jail’s population was less the result of where crime was happening or even what crimes were criminalized than where police arrested the greatest numbers of people who could not afford bail.” Those high arrest locations were and continue to be concentrated on the South and West Sides of the city, where the most poor Black people live.

As Newport writes, however, “in contrast to efforts to portray Black incarceration as a social scientific fact, Black prisoners repeatedly demonstrated their agency and political awareness through jail uprisings.” This important point is highlighted throughout Newport’s book: the fact that prisoners themselves were constantly contesting the conditions of their incarceration. For example, Alsana Caruth, who was locked in Cook County Jail pretrial because he could not afford bail, submitted testimony to the federal court in a 1974 class action lawsuit in which he stated that “pre-trial detainees are merely political slaves.” He implored people to understand that the jail was not an institution of reform but instead “a symbol of racist practices that pervaded the entire criminal justice system,” Newport writes.

Not surprisingly given the movements against racism and brutality present outside jails and prisons, the 1950s, sixties, and seventies proved to be the most active periods of prisoner rebellion in Cook County Jail and the rest of Illinois prisons; as prisoners responded to grievances like poor food and living conditions, overcrowding, violence, and arguments between prisoners and guards. People locked in Cook County Jail were able to coordinate and communicate with each other during these years through outlets such as a jail newspaper called The Grapevine, which “created space for prisoners to engage directly with the conditions of everyday life in the jail,” Newport writes. However, after the punitive turn and explosion of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s, newspapers like The Grapevine have ceased to exist. The federal Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996 has also made it almost impossible for prisoners to file and win civil rights lawsuits. As prisoners continue to push to improve their conditions, guards and politicians alike have continued to sabotage their efforts through both brutality in jails and legislation like the PLRA. This resistance to any humanitarian change has persisted as prisons and jails have continued to expand, and police departments have continued to receive seemingly unlimited funding, throughout Chicago’s entire history. 

Newport’s book demonstrates Cook County Jail has always been a place where the majority of people locked up are there because they cannot afford bail. This didn’t change much after the federal Bail Reform Act of 1966, because the Chicago Police Department has always continued to arrest massive numbers of Black people. This history is relevant to today, when there continues to be debate about the ending of cash bail in Illinois—even after the passage of the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act, which would eliminate cash bail beginning in January 2023, making Illinois the first state to do so. As long as CPD’s racist patrol and arrest practices continue, large numbers of Black people will be forced to cycle through Cook County Jail every year, no matter what happens at the judicial level. Nevertheless, conservatives have frequently attacked the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act and spread misinformation regarding the law’s consequences once it goes into effect in 2023. It is clear that their position is in favor of the mass pretrial jailing of Black Chicagoans. 

These conservative attacks can be traced, Newport writes, back to the 1980s and 1990s when Richard M. Daley was Cook County State’s Attorney and then Mayor of Chicago. Throughout this period, as well as in the 1970s, Cook County Jail was consistently overcrowded, and up to ninety percent of the people incarcerated there were awaiting trial and couldn’t afford bail. “Jail crowding was fueled by a Chicago Police Department campaign to clear the streets of gang members with outstanding warrants through disorderly conduct arrests and traffic stops,” Newport writes. Of course, CPD almost exclusively arrested Black and brown people alleged to be gang members, even though there were and are gangs of all races. 

Newport demonstrates how these racial disparities were sanctioned through criminal court systems and local politicians: “[Daley’s] belief that high bond amounts should be used to incarcerate ‘serious offenders’ before trial in the interest of public safety garnered political support from police, judges, and jail administrators ready to rally around a politics of unfreedom that allowed them to escape accountability.” Daley further “showed indifference to using his office to intervene on behalf of people harmed by carceral agencies” when he ignored the evidence of police torture that he received from Cook County Jail doctor John Raba, allowing Chicago police torture and wrongful convictions to continue unabated. 

Like today’s conservative attacks on the Pretrial Fairness Act, progressive responses to crime are also rooted in history. For example, in the 1990s, then–Cook County Public Defender Randolph Stone said that youth sometimes were involved in crime because of the “hopeless and depressed condition of many urban communities.” Stone called for a shift in focus to crime prevention by addressing issues like child abuse, housing insecurity, substance abuse, and lack of health care—calls echoed today in the defund movement. Current Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell has similarly advocated for a crime prevention approach through massive investment in under-resourced communities, and he has consistently defended the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act from conservative attacks. 

Newport has written an essential document of Chicago history that provides context to many of the pressing issues that the city faces today. Cook County Jail is not as overcrowded as it used to be, but that is not for a lack of trying by conservatives; it is a testament to the community organizations who fought to reduce the jail population and end cash bail in Illinois. Nevertheless, conservatives are still trying to gut the Pretrial Fairness Act before it goes into effect, in order to incarcerate more poor Black people in Cook County Jail. This Is My Jail demonstrates that it is the abolitionists who are truly fighting for an end to all violence and harm, whether it takes place in society or in jails and prisons. Histories like This Is My Jail are crucial because they connect the struggles of previous decades with those of today. 

Melanie Newport, This Is My Jail: Local Politics and the Rise of Mass Incarceration. $39.95. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022. 272 pages. Available November 15.

Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He last interviewed Helen Shiller for the Weekly.

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