Salma Ibrahim | Contributing Writer
On Nov. 30, addressing the pressing issues of mass incarceration and the ongoing fight against it in Cook County Jail, Assistant Professor Dr. Melanie Newport from the University of Connecticut delivered a compelling keynote speech at the Graham Center as part of the Department of History’s Atlantic Colloquium speaker series.
Recent events at Cook County Jail, including an undisclosed fire and 16 inmate deaths, have sparked concerns and activism. With approximately 5,000 inmates currently incarcerated, the lack of transparency regarding the fire’s specifics raises questions about inmate conditions.
Activists, led by the Coalition to End Money Bond, are advocating for more information about the deaths, which were predominantly due to overdoses or murders. The overall safety and accountability of Cook County Jail have come under scrutiny, especially as it has been designated “too dangerous.” The collective push for transparency underscores broader issues surrounding inmate welfare and management at the facility.
Dr. Melanie Newport narrated jail as a “political institution” and also talked about the potential sites for political engagement, radicalization, and the challenges faced by individuals advocating for anti-radical politics, as demonstrated through the experiences of figures like Fred Hampton (the leader of the Young Lords). Dr Newport mentioned his quote “You can jail a revolutionary but not a revolution. You can murder a liberator but you can’t murder a liberation”.
Dr. Newport argues that the consolidation of an anti-black perception fueled the expansion of the jail during the first war. Newport also cited statistics showing a significant African-American population in the county jail and house of correction by the end of the 1960s.
The racial demographics of those being incarcerated are crucial to the narrative, highlighting the question of who is entitled to be heard, as seen in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
Dr. Newport emphasizes that recognizing prisoner rights only gained formal acknowledgment in the courts in the 1970s and 1980s. Looking at historical sources, such as the jail newspaper from the 1950s, reveals how incarcerated individuals asserted their humanity and rights, using language like ‘forgotten’ to describe their societal standing.
Highlighting a sheriff and sociologist’s collaboration on TV documentaries like “Community of the Condemned,” the narrative delves into the impact of jail on individuals. It emphasizes power dynamics, challenges post-release, and self-expression initiatives within the jail, questioning societal expectations on rehabilitation and addressing broader concerns about civil rights and potential unrest within the institution.
Overall, the text explores the complexities of incarceration, shedding light on human perspectives in the system.
After comedian Dick Gregory’s arrest for protesting school segregation at Mayor Richard Daley’s house, he voluntarily stayed in jail and said “Comics find nothing inside” inspiring fellow activists to join a sit-down strike. Gregory leverages media attention to advocate for improved conditions, bringing figures like Dr. Martin Luther King to address their needs.
Amid escalating violence, a group of prisoners expressed desperation during a grand jury investigation in 1967, emphasizing their unsuccessful attempts to appeal to the conscience of respectable African Americans and highlighting the plight of black women and children.
“How do we break out the solidarities?” Dr. Melanie Newport asked about the various tactics employed to break up solidarity among incarcerated individuals, focusing on the shift toward mass incarceration as a maximum security enterprise.
It touches on technologies like pod-stylee cells, surveillance bugs (capturing moments on video) isolation, and electronic monitoring, emphasizing their role in separating people from each other and altering the perception of jails.
Dr Newport also highlights the impact of such strategies on individuals’ personal lives, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the efforts to resist these measures through writing campaigns and advocacy. “It’s not necessary that dehumanization is bad and humanization is good,” said Newport.
She explored the impact of incarceration, especially in the postwar liberal era, noting a shift from the idea of improving individuals to portraying incarcerated people as irreversibly violent, influenced by 1980s media narratives.
She also addressed accountability issues in jails, highlighting a sheriff’s lack of responsibility for drugs entering the facility. She also touched on the enclosure of space within jail walls and society, contributing to individual dehumanization. She emphasized the need to consider historical context and evolving human rights perspectives when examining incarceration.