The abolitionist movement is thriving in Chicago, and gaining momentum each day. On a warm Sunday on May 7, 2023, more than 60 people attended a rally outside Cook County Jail in protest and solidarity with current and former incarcerated people subjected to the jail’s inhumane conditions, including a new ban on paper that restricts access to everything from legal documents to photographs of loved ones, and a staggering seven deaths inside the jail since January, are just two examples. The rally was organized in part by Chicago Community Jail Support (CCJS), an abolitionist, volunteer-run mutual aid group that came together during the summer 2020 George Floyd protests.
Every evening, seven days a week, CCJS volunteers set up a tent and tables outside Cook County Jail where they offer snacks, bus passes, clothing and emotional support to newly released people who are often disoriented and malnourished from conditions inside. Supplies are crowdsourced and donated, including a creaky van which serves as both a home for supplies and a quick warming center during cold Chicago evenings. “We have an ongoing Open Collective,” says Chris Walsh, a youth climate organizer who joined CCJS in April 2022, of their crowdsourcing. “I’m not sure where most of our funders are from, but I know that we do have funds coming in monthly that keeps us afloat. That’s our main source.” Volunteers are always needed alongside funding; additionally, the organizers stressed the importance of also lending community support to the recent influx of migrants arriving in Chicago.
Eric O’Hara, an organizer with CCJS since early in its inception, sums up the mission statement: “We are a group of volunteers who want to abolish police, jails and prisons.”
I spoke to three CCJS organizers, Chris, Eric, and Maheen Khan, in April about their work and hopes for the future of the abolitionist movement in Chicago. Each organizer learned about jail support through word of mouth and Twitter. Maheen, for example, became involved after a CCJS Twitter thread reporting on-the-ground support during 2021’s polar vortex went viral — CCJS served some people who were released from Cook County Jail with little clothing and no jackets or coats in 13 degree weather, for example. Drawing inspiration from the work of Mariame Kaba, Kelly Hayes and Dean Spade, among others, the organizers emphasize that the growing popularity of abolition is due to the work Black abolitionists have done and continue to do.
At the rally, CCJS members read letters from people currently incarcerated in Cook County Jail, who chose to stay anonymous for safety. Someone held their phone to the mic as their loved one on the inside spoke of denied medical care, malnourishment, inadequate access to hygiene products, and abuse from correctional officers. As attendees got ready to march around the jail, gathering signs and banners, organizers led the group in a chant directly to those they aim to free — “We love you, we love you!”
Hana Urban: What exactly does Chicago Community Jail Support do?
Eric: The experience of leaving jail is intentionally difficult and jarring. People are booked at specific precincts and their property stays at that precinct. So then when they leave, if they’ve been processed through Cook County, they don’t have their phone, their wallet or anything. And so when people leave, they essentially get — I would say, a pat on the back, but not even a pat on the back — just thrown out and told to find their way home, without a cell phone or any money. The County is supposed to provide bus cards, but only 50% actually get that and get a phone call before they leave.
And so we’re there to kind of welcome people back and be like, “Hey, even though this whole system is unnecessarily cruel and treats you this way doesn’t mean that this is how the rest of us view you. You’re still a part of our community.” It’s about providing a warm environment and making sure that people aren’t feeling thrown away.
Maheen: It’s all free, to meet the immediate needs of people released and their loved ones who are waiting outside. In the wintertime, that includes having coats and hats people might need.
There isn’t really a comfortable place for people to wait or hang out when they’re released from jail. It’s a place where they can hang out and be around other people so they’re not waiting alone in the cold at night. Also, if people come out who don’t have any options for housing for that night, we try to connect them with some housing resources, whether that be shelters nearby.
Chris: Yeah, so many people come out shocked that we’re giving away free things. The whole system sucks and the least we can do is help folks get home. After being mistreated for two hours or two years, the fact that we’re there just changes everything and gives them hope again.
Do you ever encounter police coming up to the tent or do they just kind of watch from afar?
Maheen: We’ve definitely had interactions with police officers in the past. I know, there was some time where they would tell us “Oh, you can’t be on this side of the street, you have to go to your van, you have to move.” But beyond that, we try not to escalate anything with them and engage with them as little as possible, especially because our main priority is making sure that it’s a safe environment for people coming out and that they’re safe and comfortable.
Chris: This group has been around for three years, they know our mission so unless they’re feeling petty, they typically stay out of our way.
Are there any myths or misconceptions about jail support that you’ve come across, especially in progressive or leftist spaces that you would want to debunk?
Eric: Our place within the prison industrial complex is interesting to look at. On paper, the jail is supposed to be providing things like phone calls and bus passes, but instead of providing those services, sometimes the correctional officers or jail employees will say something like “The people in the purple tent will take care of that.”
There’s this perception within leftist circles that “Oh, the sheriff’s office isn’t providing that stuff because they know that jail support will do it.” That’s frustrating because it assumes that the jail has always consistently provided those resources, but they weren’t.
Maheen: Our end goal isn’t to get the jail to start doing these things. Our end goal is that this jail shouldn’t exist. But okay, what if the jail decided to provide these things? What would that look like? Would the jail then get more funding? That’s also not aligned with our goals either.
So at the end of the day, we’re just trying to make sure that people get to where they need to be safely and they aren’t alone outside the jail all night. Some people get released at midnight, it’s scary. Sometimes it’s freezing out, like negative 10 degrees, we want to make sure people have a coat. We just want people to feel safe and feel like they’re being seen as people who deserve to be cared for.
Chris: People aren’t talking about this everyday, right? So from a revolutionary standpoint, I don’t think people see this as a good path forward. They’d rather do other political actions and they don’t see how jail support fits in that picture. I think more than people realize, we need to help everyone we can now while trying to push forward to the future that we hope comes to life someday.
Eric: Remember, jail is for people who have not yet been convicted of a crime. These people are having their freedom taken away for days, months or years before they see trial or ever see trial, purely because a cop decided to arrest them. Even if someone is found guilty by the court system, prison is not the option. We are fully for abolishing jails and prisons, but specifically looking at jails right now.
A lot of people come out of the jail and have their cases thrown out, which means that someone else looked at the case and said, “Oh, there was actually no reason that this person should have been arrested,” or “there’s no reason we can convict this person of whatever they were supposed to have done.” Those people are our golden standard of fucking justice — which is an incredibly sarcastic comment, in case this is in writing.
They haven’t shown up to work, haven’t been paying utilities or rent or whatever it may be for weeks or months if they didn’t have a system to take care of that for them while they were behind bars. People will come out having lost their jobs, having lost their homes, having potentially lost personal relationships, things like that.
These are people who were arrested for owning a gun that they legally had a license for, or arrested for having weed, which is legal in Illinois. They lose time from their lives, their freedom, and potentially much more than that because of a cop’s malice, or in the best case, a cop’s ignorance of the law. I think that the roles that jails play isn’t fully understood. There’s a much deeper understanding of what roles prisons play — and prisons are obviously unjust — but for jails, where it’s people who haven’t seen a trial yet, there’s so much trauma and emotional consequence that comes with being arrested. It’s an intentionally confusing and drawn out bureaucratic process.
Is there a wider jail support network outside of Chicago that you’re plugged into?
Maheen: A group of organizers from New York recently reached out to us because they’ve thought about starting something similar there. We met with them and explained how it works here logistically and how we’ve been able to maintain it for so many years. That’s the extent to how I’ve been plugged in to other groups.
It’s kind of surprising that New York doesn’t already have one.
Maheen: Yeah, after talking to them more about it, I realized how unique it is that we’ve been able to maintain this in Chicago. There’s a lot of logistical things that make it easier in a place like Chicago than in New York. Like, people don’t drive nearly as much in New York, so the thought of getting a van to keep all your supplies in and having a garage to keep that van in and extra supplies — that’s a lot harder. And we have Cook County Jail, which is the obvious spot for us to do jail support, but the New York equivalent of a Cook County Jail is found in every borough so that makes it really hard. Apparently, there’s like one bus that goes to Rikers and it runs infrequently. And it’s like 10 times more inaccessible to get to than Cook County Jail.
Have any of you been inspired by other abolition movements or activists?
Eric: Definitely. We are obviously not the ones who first came up with jail support. This is all built on what activists and what, specifically, Black feminists and abolitionists have been doing for decades. And so learning from those teachings has been instrumental to our mission. Dean Spade’s mutual aid work and Mariame Kaba’s abolitionist experiments were discussed extensively in the early forming of the group. As far as the day to day, organizations like the Chicago Community Bond Fund were pretty instrumental in helping get CCJS off the ground.
It’s been just about three years since CCJS began and we’re still in a really tense and honestly dangerous political climate for a lot of people. Has that impacted the work and how you organize?
Eric: What we do on a day to day basis, has stayed the same. I think volunteer engagement changes just in terms of where people are, where their capacity is at certain times. Like during summer 2020, we saw a lot of activation in people. It may have been because of how hot that summer was just in terms of how much there was going on and how much people wanted to be pulled in. You can also look at how much time people had on their hands or extra money in their pockets from unemployment checks. But as far as the group goes, we’ve definitely got a core group that has been pretty steadfast. Until the jail goes away we’re staying out there, and the jail hasn’t gone away yet.
It’s funny, like when I first joined everyone wore masks so I couldn’t tell what anybody looked like or how old they were. But from my experience it has been a pretty wide range in terms of age, from people who are significantly older to people who are still in college, which is really cool to see because you see people who have similar values and goals in terms of abolition spanning multiple generations.
In your ideal world, what does the future of jail support and abolition movements look like?
Chris: A lot more people taking care of each other, getting creative, doing what we got to do to survive, because the system is not going to take care of us. My ideal is that we don’t need these abolitionist groups, because we’d be living in an abolitionist world, right? That’s the peak. But I see many forms of practicing abolition, where we’re focusing on community care and taking care of each other. Because one of the things we emphasize a lot when people come out is we don’t care why you’re in jail, that’s not what’s important to us, we don’t need to know that.
There’s this mainstream misconception that says abolition means everyone does whatever they want, even hurt people and do whatever, because everything is abolished. I wish there was a mainstream understanding that abolition means that when a person is harmed, we immediately take their hurt and pain seriously and we collectively think of how we can help this person heal? And also how can we help hold whoever did the harm accountable in a way that’s productive and also helpful for them and not just locking them up? Because I think that’s one thing that gets lost in the word abolition.
Eric: Yeah the last point about abolition I want to make is about presence. It’s not just about what we tear down, but what we build up. What world are we actually building? I want a world where people have agency and autonomy, where we’re not taking that from anyone or looking to punishment as a solution for things that are more deeply rooted and have much more complex and personal answers.
There’s a Ruth Wilson Gilmore quote about sustained creative aggression. Where it’s like, how can we be aggressive against these unjust systems and the people who spend so much money and time trying to persuade us to believe that this current system is our only option? How can we aggressively support our own communities where we are consistently showing up?
Each of our volunteers’ have different capacities for involvement, but at the heart we have a group of people who are committed to sustaining this project. Whether it’s showing up every week or organizing supply drives, volunteers are continuing to show up for the people — that’s really valuable to the organization and the movement as a whole. Do whatever you think is your role and do it consistently. I think having volunteers be consistent is crucial to a lot of the work that we do.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Hana Urban is a freelance writer and fact-checker in Chicago. They tweet @likeplumptastic.