Melanie Newport

Incarceration and Injustice

Air Date: June 6, 2022

University of Connecticut historian Melanie Newport discusses the contemporary prison and jail system.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Melanie Newport, a historian at the University of Connecticut and author of the forthcoming book “This Is My Jail: Local Politics and The Rise of Mass Incarceration.” Thank you for joining me today, Melanie.


NEWPORT: Thanks.


HEFFNER: Melanie, what inspired you to write this book that you’ve been working on, that will be due out towards the end of this year?


NEWPORT: I would say it was a really a sense of confusion. A lot of people don’t know the difference between jails and prisons. So I wanted to get to the bottom of why do we have jails? Why do we expand jails? Who goes to jail? And it turned out that there is a really exciting but also troubling history that I was able to find in Chicago. So that I ended up looking to that case study just because there were so many fascinating people that contributed to the development of that jail.


HEFFNER: We recently hosted Michael Walker, a sociologist who did an ethnography of jails. And it was the first of its kind, but the important part of the program for me and our viewers, I think, was delineating between jails and prisons. And I just ask you to do that again for our viewers, because they’ve been mutually associated without any delineation or differentiation. Tell our viewers what the difference is.


NEWPORT: Right. So I’m actually going to start with the definition of prisons because I think that helps with what people already know. Right, so prisons are for people who have been sentenced for felony crimes, they’re usually they’re only run by states. So what makes jails is that many of the people in jail are awaiting trial. They haven’t been sentenced for crimes and if they are sentenced for crimes, they’re serving very short sentences. But I think one of the most important things that I hope that my book brings into relief is that jails are also urban political institutions, right? So these are places that are usually run by sheriffs or city officials. These are hyper-local places in our cities and our counties that we have to care about.


HEFFNER: One of the things that Michael pointed out in our interview was that in jail, you often are living, you know, awaiting a trial or some sort of judicial proceeding. You haven’t been convicted yet. And often the lights stay on all the time. Like there, there is no time for sleep, or at least the traditional idea of sleep where you turn the lights off. And I found that really something I hadn’t heard before and something that folks should understand about just the context of having, living awaiting a judicial proceeding not being found, you know, guilty but yet you know, basically being in a situation that is going to most likely produce a bad mental or physical health outcome.


NEWPORT Yeah, I mean, so I think one of the things that’s really crucial is that, you know, that warehousing element right, where people are just kind of stuck in jail with nothing to do, but wait, right, is one of the kind of continual functions of jails. Jails have changed over time, dramatically throughout history, you know, In the progressive era in Chicago, they had people making bricks. Throughout history, people have been involved in road crews, right, doing kind of unpaid labor. The notion that jail is a place of kind of pre-trial punishment has really only developed in the last 30 or 40 years. The idea that there should be a punitive element before trial. But that doesn’t mean that the jails of the past were nice places. You know, it wasn’t until the seventies that families consistently got the right to bring children to visit their parents in jail. The kind of healthcare provision is deeply uneven throughout history. Mentally ill people being shackled to beds has been a very normal thing throughout the history of jails. But I think the deprivation is something that incarcerated people from, you know, my sources in the 19th century to the present, they talk about a lot, right. You’re cut off from work. You’re cut off from family. All of the things you rely on for stimulation and support.


HEFFNER: In your mind in looking at the, the link between local politics and jails in Chicago, kind of where did that, that linkage start and where is that linkage today?


NEWPORT: Right. I mean, so one of the ways that scholars have long talked about jails is being kind of pre-modern institutions, right? That these are kind of reflection of an urge to just kind of remove people from society temporarily. But I think when you put in the political story, you see that the modern jail really emerges as part of the Jim Crow project of urban racial regulation and particularly the consolidation of white political authority through patronage. And so when I talk about that, you know, this is the notion that people should be able to benefit, either through, people in power should be able to benefit from the jail, you know, in terms of providing jobs to people in their political party, controlling resources, or just experiencing the pleasure of having power over other people. And so one of the ways that I think about jails today is that this is not a question of whether it’s the new Jim Crow or the old Jim Crow. This is just kind of persistent Jim Crow that we see as a foundational aspect of American politics.


HEFFNER: And in doing the research over this span of decades, separate from that point, I think it’s a really good point about the old versus new Jim Crow. And it’s just a continuity of Jim Crow. When did the realization of mass incarceration happen, in sort of both your world as a historian, but also in public policy? Because that expression and term, I mean, in the nineties with, you know, the, you know, and really subsequently for three decades there was a tough on crime movement that seemed just imperceptively kind of disconnected from, or not even aware of the looming mass incarceration. So I’m wondering in your mind, in doing the research you did, when awareness of that began, that, you know, and is it related at all to racialized policies and the old versus the new Jim Crow, because while there may be a continuity in one Jim Crow, I don’t know that there’s a continuity when it comes to mass incarceration, because it didn’t happen overnight. It was, you know, it was a process.


NEWPORT: Right? And this is why I highlight the, the kind of continuity side of the story, right?  And as a historian my job is change over time, right? And so this is how I have to really get into what does this change look like at different moments. But for me, you know, what shocked me about looking at the statistics on incarceration in Cook County, which has historically the most surprising and shocking kind of racial history, African Americans were always disproportionately represented in the jail for as long as there were black people in Chicago. This was a major point of open political discussion throughout the 1920s. It’s why they moved Cook Xounty jail to the west side of Chicago, because they didn’t want the jail downtown. But to me it really takes off with the civil rights movement. The jail was being used for the political incarceration of African Americans. It’s in the 1950s and sixties that the jails in Chicago become majority black institutions, right? So over 50 percent of people in jail were African American. So this is a point of policy discussion. It’s not a question of what do we do with this jail? It’s a question of what do we do with this jail that is predominantly black? And so to me, the story of mass incarceration is intrinsic to the, to jails, to what jails do. But certainly it’s part of, you know, the kind of backlash or front lash to the civil rights movement. These are as much tools of kind of targeting black liberation and demands for the recognitions of kind of humanity and civil rights, as they are for, you know, detaining people before trial. What changes I think in the 1980s, which is not unimportant is the expansion of jails in size. They hadn’t had the capacity before and the technology that could be used to jail. So the rise of electronic monitoring or shackling that could be used to jail someone in their own home. So the history of race and jails is really dynamic, but it’s an open point of discussion I’m finding in political history.


HEFFNER: And do you think in today’s jail culture, there is that correlation still being made, or do you think that the carceral state of America, as it has evolved today is not necessarily race blind, but it’s not as much of a racialized problem as it is an institutional problem. The way that we, you know, treat particular offenses and you know, the way that the judicial or legal process works or doesn’t work? Is, the problem with mass incarceration today less of a racial problem?


NEWPORT: No.(laugh.) And the reason I would say that is because using the jail as a tool of racialized political authority is the purpose of the institution. It is there to consolidate power over communities of color as well as people who are lower class of all races. So I don’t think you can delink race in jails. And if anything, the challenge is more profound. in Cook County something like 80 percent of people in jail are people of color today, right? And we have a sheriff who never mentions race. He would like us to not ever mention race. But it’s at the very heart and purpose of the institutions. And, you know, one way I like to think about it is that there is no such thing as an anti-racist jail. It just doesn’t exist.

HEFFNER: I mean, that, that is such a, such an indictment of our justice system. Basically you’re saying there is absolutely no equal justice under the law, in the prison population.


NEWPORT: Yeah. And incarcerated people have been saying this always. You know.


HEFFNER: But is that the key to the prescription here? Because I do want to spend some time now talking about prescriptive measures. One thing I didn’t hear you say was that the corporatization or monetization of the prison industrial complex is to blame. And I just wanted to ask you that to launch into our discussion about solutions or prescriptions. How much of that was not a factor when you first started chronicling jails versus today, that is the fact that it was in imprisoning people basically was being incentivized by a monetary gain.


NEWPORT: Yeah. I see what you’re saying. Sometimes people will talk about this in terms of prison privatization,




NEWPORT: And I’m less interested in that because most jails are publicly operated. And so there are people who benefit from contracts with jails, you know, and providing things like food or healthcare, depending on where you are. But these are really public institutions. And so I think we have to look to, you know, an analysis of liberalism. Why do we think of jails as important sources of jobs? And why are these the only good jobs that we can offer in cities? And they aren’t good jobs, right? People get traumatized. They get hurt at work. These are miserable places to work. But I think it’s worth considering the many financial imperatives for these institutions that again, having control over these jobs gives sheriffs an outsized form of power. We don’t have prisons that are run directly by elected officials.


HEFFNER: Yeah. So that clearly would be a transition to a more just outcome, or representative outcome. So take us through what might be the incremental steps towards reform of this institution that you say, right now, whether it’s in Chicago, around the country is plagued by unfairness.

NEWPORT: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think jails can be reformed. I think the rot is too deep. So, you know, I would join many activists and incarcerated people in saying that we need to empty out the jails that most people don’t belong there.


HEFFNER: Well, let’s, let’s just take a pause though, when you say that, because you know, people, and I wouldn’t say it’s a, it’s a single political party. Both political parties are afraid of the language you just identified. When you say empty out the jails, I want to understand more specifically, what you mean. Do you mean pre basically pre-incarceration for folks who, you know, if they could afford it would be out on bail, you know, that, that in those cases, the jail is such a destructive or disastrous institution that it basically prejudices the whole possibility of equal justice under the law because if someone accused of a crime can’t afford bail and is sitting in a jail, that there’s perhaps the argument that they lose, basically the functionality. They, they can’t, you know, to make decisions about their defense. I understand if you’re going in that direction. I think you’re speaking more broadly.  But what about, what do you mean when you say empty jails?


NEWPORT: I mean, I think, I think it’s interesting that you frame the question in terms of the concerns of people who are passionate about jailing, right, who believe that jailing should be used for control and racial regulation and political repression. There are enough people in this society advocating for jails. And after studying this issue for 10 years, I refuse to use my precious life to advocate for the caging of human beings. So yes, we should abolish cash bail. If we’re uncomfortable with releasing everyone awaiting trial, let’s release most people awaiting trial. Let’s take seriously the expansive evidence that these are institutions that create crime, that create harm both for the people incarcerated there and for the people who work there. And let’s imagine doing literally anything else with our tax dollars: schools, mental healthcare, healthcare, basic needs provisions, housing, because most of the people who are in jail have experienced some form of poverty or deprivation. So I think if we want to think about what kind of world we could build, where we’re not relying on jails as this kind of reflection of our failures, what would it mean to build a more life affirming version of American urban governance? And I think we could do it. I refuse to let go of my hope for that. Because I think the jail is probably one of the most cynical American political institutions.


HEFFNER: So in terms of that question of reliance on jails, I hear you saying that. You don’t live in a free society when you rely on disproportionately punishing people, right? There, there is basically, in the long understanding of human civilization there is a construct, and it’s not necessarily a social construct. It could be a moral construct about crime and how you, you know, penalize offenders. And I don’t think you’re suggesting applying this to a prison population of convicted, you know, felons. You’re not saying again, I just want to make that distinction between jail and prison. When you’re talking about prisons, that house folks who have been convicted of crimes, you believe that there is a justice system that does have to punish people for certain crimes? Are you specifically just referring to jails when you talk about this, are you referring to prison too?


NEWPORT: I mean, I’m against caging human beings. I think we could think much more expansively about freedom, and what it looks like to actually hold people accountable for crimes, what it looks like to recognize their humanity. And even if I think, you know, maybe they’re at the end of the day, they’re just people we don’t want in our society. That’s a sliver of the number of people in prison. So I personally choose to use, you know, my knowledge and my political power as a citizen to advocate for as little incarceration as possible, because I want to imagine a world without prisons and jails.


HEFFNER: Right. Right. And I think that most people would say that, in terms of wanting to live somewhere, for example, where there isn’t a large neighboring prison population. The whole point of that is, you know, you want to feel a sense of safety, security, that there is neighborliness in your community. That there are, you know, good people who are law abiding and thoughtful, compassionate citizens. So I mean, on the left and the right, you probably have a consensus there when it comes to, you know, wanting to have the least possible incarceration. But where I guess it’s a culture of divide right now in this country is what ought to constitute a long sentence or incarceration. And there seems to be increasingly a bipartisan consensus that the decades long war on drugs was, you know, if not needless, extremely problematic and basically created an incentive for mass incarceration. Where do you see that conversation culturally going in terms of kind of how you can potentially, over time make incarceration less and less of option A as opposed to, you know, option C or D?


NEWPORT: Well, I think like a lot of people who care about this country, right, I’m playing the long game in terms of how I think about it. What I have found with my research on the history of jails is that we don’t even know what questions to ask. Journalists, community members, folks of all stripes don’t necessarily know what it would look like to have jails that were politically accountable to them or reflective of their values, because they don’t even know what’s happening in their own jails.




NEWPORT: So this kind of knowledge, isn’t everything, but this deficit, I think presents a real challenge, you know, particularly as here in Connecticut, where I am our state legislature has been aggressively, you know, even as we’re making weed something you can go buy at a nice boutique store, aggressively criminalizing children for stealing cars. That’s not the war on drugs, but that’s expanding criminalization and turning to the criminal justice system to try and solve other problems. And so I retain my sense of hope so that I can survive. But at the same time, I am convinced that the bipartisan passion for jailing as a deployment of political power and racial repression is an addiction in this country. And I really don’t see people as trying to heal from that in any kind of good faith way. And I think that’s why community-based initiatives, in terms of mutual aid, in terms of trying to repair harm rather than calling the cops on a more kind of intimate level. I think those initiatives are really important for where we look to people who are saying they have the solutions to these problems


HEFFNER: And you, and do you think, and we just have seconds left, but do you think this a starting point is this bipartisan movement now on drug offenders, at least, starting with the first step back, but other, just sort of the consciousness about, you know, there shouldn’t be years long sentences for nonviolent offenses, like the… Do you have any hopefulness in that because you said there’s a bipartisan addiction to incarceration, but there seems to be a bipartisan movement to decarcerate at least when it comes to nonviolent offenders?


NEWPORT: Yeah. But I mean, who is categorized as violent, right. That’s a fluid kind of categorization. I think both parties are passionate about the status quo and when you have one political party that sanctions insurrection, I don’t necessarily think bipartisan anything is going to be a solution.


HEFFNER: You do know just in the, I have to say this, just the, the folks who you, you make a very valid point, but you know what folks say in response to the comment about the insurrection, which was, the particular incidence of violent crime during the summer of protests of the Floyd murder, do you just not take that at face value? You know, that actually happened, or you think that it’s just grossly overestimated? Because there was, you know, there was arson, looting…


NEWPORT: People are much more excited to call property damage violence than they are storming the capital.


HEFFNER: Or at least one political party is, yeah.


NEWPORT: You know, so…


HEFFNER: I hear you. We’re out of time. Yeah. But I, I think that your point about not know, not caring about what goes on in a local jail is really important and that the vast majority of the American electorate would say that is an underworld that I’m not going to concern myself with. And I hope that changes and I hope your book, methodically researching the evolution of jail in Chicago, Cook Counties is going to help accomplish that. Melanie Newport historian at UConn and author of the forthcoming “This is My Jail: Local Politics and the Rise of Mass Incarceration.” Thank you so much for joining me today.


NEWPORT: Thank you.


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