“Good Intentions Have Never Been Enough”

Under the guise of ‘rehabilitation,’ Chicago’s 200 year history of jail reform has only ever justified repression.

Melanie Newport

A sign pleading for help hangs in a window at Chicago's Cook County jail complex on Apr. 9, 2020. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the late 1960s, a man named Winston Moore gained national renown as a jail reformer and was perhaps the nation’s first Black jail warden. As head of the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC), Moore often talked about how the makeup of his jail was 90% Black. He hired a nearly all-Black guard staff and hosted jail concerts that featured performers such as B. B. King and Stevie Wonder. Implementing his Building Program and Master Plan, Moore carried out the largest single-site jail expansion project in American history. This is my dream,” Moore said of his many reforms. 

He was not unusual in dreaming of jail reform. In the early 1900s, Cook County Jail warden John Whitman had imagined the jail could be a benevolent institution where prisoners were transformed. In the 1950s, Cook County sheriff Joseph Lohman believed jailers could rehabilitate people and hoped to make the jail a place of racial assimilation through a program to improve race relations. 

Historian Rebecca McLennan has shown that early prisons existed in a permanent state of crisis” and became legitimated as institutions only through ongoing destructive and creative” attempts at reform. Over the course of the 20th century, going back to the Progressive Era, local jail reformers and politicians have relied on racist ideologies to promote jails as rehabilitative institutions that could solve their cities’ social ills, an effective argument that has ensured continued jail expansion. Jailers and sheriffs alike traded on patriarchal benevolence and their ability, as men and fathers, to civilize people in jail.

Historian Rebecca McLennan has shown that early prisons existed in a “permanent state of crisis” and became legitimated only through ongoing attempts at reform.

Chicago and Cook County were always on the vanguard of political efforts to implement jail reform. 

Nearly 200 years after the first frontier jail opened in Chicago, reform sheriff Tom Dart has assumed the mantle as Cook County’s chief jailer. As heir to 50 years of work by Cook County sheriffs to consolidate their power over jailing, Dart’s ease with the press and his benevolent program calls to mind Whitman, the Progressive jailer who touted the jail’s benefits for Black prisoners. Amid activism against mass incarceration that built pressure for criminal justice reform” across the United States, Dart sidestepped conversations about race, finding outlets such as The Atlantic and 60 Minutes eager to accept his simple provocation: jails are the largest mental health institutions in America. Charged with an energy for jail reform unseen since the 1950s, Dart touts new jail programs: prisoners growing vegetables for high-end local restaurants, prisoners selling honey at the farmers’ market, prisoners learning how to make pizza, prisoners training service dogs, prisoners learning life lessons from playing pickleball.

***

For as long as there have been Black people in Chicago, they have been disproportionately represented in its jails. 

Chicago’s jails began as places for outsiders excluded from the affluence that made Chicago such a vibrant, prosperous metropolis. Operated by the city, the Bridewell, the House of Correction, and the House of Correction farm originated in the 19th century to detain people who worked to pay back fines to the city and those awaiting trial for petty crimes, particularly immigrants and Black southern migrants. Multiple iterations of the Cook County Jail, established in the 1830s and moved to the West Side in 1929, served to detain people accused of crimes, those serving short sentences, and, in an unusual practice specific to Illinois jails at this time, those awaiting execution in the jail’s gallows and electric chair. Since the mid-20th century, Black people have made up a majority of its prisoners.

In 2012, the typical prisoner was a 32-year-old Black man, most likely hailing from the South or West Side of Chicago. This makeup is the consequence 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. In the words of Toni Preckwinkle, who was elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2010, It’s not an accident that the jail is filled with black and brown people,” she said. It’s not a lottery.… It’s a function of the neighborhood where you live and how the police treat you.”

Chicago and Cook County were always on the vanguard of political efforts to implement jail reform.

Since the transformation of Chicago’s jails into sites of majority Black incarceration in the late 1950s and the 1960s, jailed people have contested the notion that jails were an ideal form of implementing urban racial uplift. In 1975, as he was awaiting trial in CCDOC, Alsana Caruth declared that pre-trial detainees are merely political slaves.” He submitted his testimony to the federal courts in Duran v. Elrod, a class-action suit legal aid lawyers filed on behalf of prisoners in 1974 documenting the dehumanizing abuse involved in every day and night’s existence, as a pre-trial detainee.” Caruth was part of a long procession of jailed Black people, from Charles Pile, who tried to burn the jail down in the 1860s, to Dick Gregory, jailed with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, who experienced such conditions.

Jailed people’s activism has continued to this day. 18 months into the pandemic, prisoners went on hunger strike as they demanded vaccines; access to cleaning materials, masks, and sanitizer; and recognition of their plight. A class-action lawsuit has since charged that basic disease-mitigation measures were not initially followed; a judge agreed, ordering Sheriff Dart to distribute face masks and hand sanitizer to prisoners and to close congregate housing areas, including bull pens. 

CCDOC garnered attention early in the pandemic as a Covid hotspot after a study suggested that over 15% of Covid cases in both Chicago and Illinois were linked to the jail. Cook County Jail became a symbol of prisoner suffering as a viral image made during protests circulated around the world: a prisoner had used shaving cream to write HELP. WE MATTER” on the windows of Division 10. The image illustrated countless articles about the pandemic in jails and prisons. For the first time in a long time, an individual prisoner’s voice rose above the sheriff’s narrative machine. 

In September 2021, activists projected the words of a jailed person onto the exterior walls of Division 10: This county is crooked, it’s corrupt, and they don’t care about us. They want us to lay down and die here … We in here fighting. We not gon’ give up.” The words of jailed people were recorded from phone calls by the organizations Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and the Nicholas Lee Foundation, an organization founded by Cassandra Lee to honor her husband, who died of Covid-19 in jail. The message of prisoners and their advocates to the Cook County sheriff was explicit: TOM DART … FUCKING DO SOMETHING.”

The 96-acre jail on Chicago’s West Side is an open wound. No reform can rescue it from the collective trauma it has enacted.

Yet in later months — even after at least 10 incarcerated people died after contracting Covid, thousands more had lost their right to a speedy trial, and an electronic monitoring expansion had jailed thousands across Cook County — the sheriff s office begged people to ignore the class-action suit and pursued recognition for their work to mitigate spread of the disease in a jail that remained 75% Black and 16% Latinx. 

***

If we take the complex history of jailing seriously, we know that what people have wanted for jails has never been isolated from the harms the institutions have wrought. While the justifications for jails have changed over time — that misdemeanants need rehabilitation, that violent people must be prevented from committing more crimes, that jails are beneficial when they are safe for people awaiting trial — we can feel confident that racial justifications for jailing will continue to take new forms as long as jails exist.

Winston Moore once mused that the hardest thing to do … has been to outlive this institution’s damn awful past.” As we incorporate this past into our assessment of jails, we must consider the role jails have played in state violence, political repression, and racial regulation. 

There is no reform that can rescue the institution from the collective trauma it has enacted and continues to enact: the 96-acre jail on Chicago’s West Side is an open wound. Good intentions have never been enough.

Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted from This Is My Jail: Local Politics and the Rise of Mass Incarceration by Melanie Newport. Copyright © 2022 The University of Pennsylvania Press. Used by permission of the publisher. 

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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