“Metropolitan Corrections” and Prisoner Rights Struggles in Chicago’s Jails

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Melanie Newport, University of Connecticut
This paper focuses on prisoners and their relationships with political allies during the 1960s. In a political climate where the state of Illinois pursued reforms for bail procedures, jail standards, and treatment of pre-trial detainees, two camps of supporters emerged in response to prisoners’ rights in Chicago’s jails, the House of Correction and Cook County Jail. While scholars have considered the procedural reforms of criminal court practices and the Constitutional rights of prisoners as world apart, jails housing pre-trial and sentenced prisoners represented a critical middle ground where prisoners and their allies struggled to make meaning of their changing context in an institution still largely operated through administrative discretion.

A growing cadre of professional reformers rooted in the city and county’s middle class sought to influence jail conditions through policy avenues, among them, the League of Women Voters aimed to advance reforms rooted in penology to instill a program of “Metropolitan Corrections” to ensure accountable and depoliticized governance of the two jails under a single administrative body. As reformers imagined the possibilities of a jail merger, prisoners lived jailers’ experiments with rehabilitation. Paul Crump, a prisoner awaiting execution in Cook County Jail’s infamous electric chair, struggled to control his own critiques of the inequalities that lead to jailing as reformers coopted his story to deemphasize jail violence and overcrowding. Less successfully, people working directly with prisoners struggled to amplify prisoners’ concerns about jail conditions. Dick Gregory, a comedian and civil rights activist detained in the Chicago House of Correction, inspired two hundred prisoners to go on hunger strike over conditions in the city jail. Reflecting tensions nationwide over metropolitan governance and the rights revolution in criminal justice, policy-based reform efforts undermined grassroots prisoner rights struggles within Chicago’s jails. Prisoners bore the consequences of policymakers’ loyalties to metropolitan governance.

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