Not Yet Caught Up (2019)

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“Not Yet Caught Up” in Maria Gaspar, ed. Feedback. Limited edition artist’s book (2019).

Maria Gaspar is a Chicago-based artist. Since 2012, she has been organising projects in and around the Cook County jail in Chicago US. She invited writers to respond to a photograph she sent within a set number of words to be included in the artist book she created. More on Gaspar’s work including the installation Haunting Raises Specters (by A.G.) first exhibited at Jane Addams Hull House Museum can be found here.

The architects of the first Cook County Jail have done considerable study in the United States and in Europe, they emphasize proudly.[1] It’s not surprising. We’re entering what historians call the era of the “Big House” when a mania for reform – which involves scientific study, living laboratories, tight professional networks, committees of upstanding citizens, judges, prison wardens, and a righteous sense of doing good for progress, progress, progress – chases screaming headlines (WAR ON BANDITS!), and together with enhanced police power helps legitimate a prison-building boom at an industrial scale. The number of people imprisoned, which continues to rise throughout the 1930s and is completely impervious to the stock market crash of 1929 and the worldwide economic depression that follows, reaches its highest level yet until the last quarter of the twentieth century. As in our time, the prison boom and the war on crime develop in inverse relationship to actual crime rates, with incarceration increasing as crime rates decline.[2] But this is neither here nor there as this prison boom is very good for creating crimes and criminals (and the FBI), and this in turn is very good for the large array of stakeholders invested in it, including the criminologists and sociologists who find Chicago and its universities a particularly hospitable location for their endeavours.

The criminologists are important, even if the architects barely mention them. One reason they are important is that by 1929, they’ve produced almost forty years of statistical research on black criminality.[3] This statistical research, notwithstanding the counter-efforts of Black sociologists and public intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, provides a modern scientific veneer for a range of racialized presumptions circulating in this early prison-industrial complex, including a modernized version of nineteenth-century criminal anthropology’s natural-born criminal.[4] Africans and anarchists are still the principal prototypes for the criminal race of men, but in this complex, post-Reconstruction moment in which African American men, women, and children are both on the move to all points and being violently captured, confined, and killed, the “condemnation of blackness,” to use Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s powerful phrase, is without mercy.[5] African Americans will be treated as a criminal race, whose ontology – what they were, what they are, what they could be – would be reduced to its essential criminality, their supposed basic nature. There is no turning back now. The criminologists, along with their sociologist colleagues, will help naturalize this racial regime, in which criminalization and police power will take the lead in doing the work of racial ordering seemingly required for capitalist industry and progress. The numbers will speak to them as the heads spoke to Cesare Lombroso, with certainty.

In planning the design for the new prison, the architects explain, there were many considerations and seven requirements, two of which catch my attention. One concerns the site selection. They have difficulty raising the money. It takes them more than ten years to get the bonds approved and by then the sketches for a “skyscraper building with jail accommodations in the tower” had to be abandoned. But they have no difficulty locating the property that, among other advantages, provides “almost unlimited room for expansion.” How convenient that the property has been in use as a workhouse and prison since 1871, when Bridewell Prison at Polk and Wells Streets is renamed the Chicago House of Corrections and moves its operations to a new space at California Avenue and 26th Street. You can’t really tell this from the photograph above, which is taken at an awkward, distant angle capturing principally the side view of the courthouse from California Avenue, and which has the effect of making the adjacent jail complex appear missing, as the watchtowers can’t be seen. The photograph is dominated too by the cars, and the train, and the sense that perhaps one is looking at a railway station – a place for movement, not confinement.

I consult the online images, as instructed. Some give a better view. The prisoners do not arrive by train or by car but by a special bus, seemingly at night, accompanied by many police in long coats and tall boots, pistols at the ready. The men are walking through the gate huddled close together, jackets and hats on, shielding their faces from the photographer. The new big jail – progress, progress, progress – will absorb the workhouse. The workhouse has a long and sordid history. There are memories already there waiting for the men when they arrive. For example:

refused to talk
and was sent to “thaw out”
               sent to Lost Privilege Company
for mauling and kissing another boy used
               to teach younger boys to steal
one would almost call him
                              playing bandits[6]

The men arriving on the bus will find that Miss Scully’s drawing class is no longer available. There will be no more strange educational exercises where young men hold their arms out in front of them, as if testing in the dark for the wall. Neither will it be necessary to have a separate prison just for the poor, the indebted, the workshy, and for all those who refuse to behave properly, who are unbecoming. They will all be together now in the new big jail house with four cell blocks and room for more.

Together but divided, as one of the seven “cardinal” design requirements, is segregation. By “sex, colour and… nature of offense” does not warrant justification or explanation. The “telegraph pole plan,” the result of a “gratifying” “independent study” that found it also suitable for the new jail being built on Rikers Island, has a very specific advantage over previously popular designs. It can avoid the “trouble” caused by “prisoners communicating,” and “the difficulty of supervising” them when they are not segregated. Everyone is aware of the political agitation and the resulting repression of it across the country during the teens and twenties. Chicago is busy: Haymarket, the Pullman strike, the Black Lawyers Guild, Big Bill Haywood’s arrest, the Palmer raids that targeted “alien” radicals for deportation, the meatpacking and stockyard strikes. Inside prisons, the battle at Folsom in November 1927 presaged the rebellions yet to come – in 1929 alone at Clinton and Auburn prisons in New York in July, at Colorado State Penitentiary in October, and then again at Auburn in December, where the 1,700 men there had really had enough of the chain gang.

Imprisonment is a means by which unwanted people, threatening ideas, and impermissible fellowships are outlawed and made inaccessible, illegible, and illegitimate. What the prison architects failed to learn from all their study was that something happens to the prison or is deposited there in this process. For in bringing these troubling ideas – their makers and their users – into its walls, the prison encloses within itself the very ideas it is designed to silence or make invisible. In this way, the prison becomes a repository or an archive of a fugitive knowledge that haunts it. Chimurenga Library’s Pan African Space Station asks: “Can a past that the present has not yet caught up with be summoned to haunt the present as an alternative?”[7] The answer is yes. It has been summoned. It will be summoned again.

[1]The Western Architect, Volume XXXVIII, Number 9, September 1929 includes a section on “Cook County’s Criminal Court and Jail in the Making,” with photographs, floor plans, and articles by Cook County Architect Eric E. Hall and his principal designer, Ralph W. Hammett, 154-160.

[2] Between 1925 and 1939, the rate of imprisonment increases from 79 to 137 per 100,000. A large portion of this increase is the result of a new wave of criminalization targeting African Americans and political radicals. See Scott Christianson, With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), 229. See also Jeffrey S. Adler, “Less Crime, More Punishment: Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice in Early Twentieth-Century America,.” The Journal of American History, June 2015, 34-46.

[3] Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 2.

[4] See Avery F. Gordon, “‘I’m already in a sort of tomb’: A Reply to Philip Scheffner’s The Halfmoon Files,”. South Atlantic Quarterly 110, no. 1 (Winter 2011), 121–154.

[5] See Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[6] The Work-Shy is a book of poetry based on the case files of the first youth prisons in California. The Blunt Research Group, The Work-Shy. (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2016), 44.

[7] Linda, “Remembering Silences,” April 13, 2016 at: