When I was a law clerk, they would snap at defendants because they
looked at me. A sheriff would go up to their face and say, “I’m going to
take you into lock up if you look at her.” Really arbitrary types of
violent acts that were happening and induced a level of fear. The more I
was able to have access in the courthouse and see theses sheriffs
working, the more I realized that they would often share additional
abusive practices that were happening in the jail or even upon release
from the Cook County Jail. And that became kind of the inspiration to
want to finish that story – what types of abuses are occurring beyond
the walls of the jail. Because when we think of a jail, we think that
the punishment stops at the walls. It doesn’t.
Q: What was the atmosphere in the jail?
Van Cleve: I talk a lot in my book about a carefully arranged
“us vs. them” culture. And in many cases this culture is built upon
racial divides between who is primarily the target of the criminal
justice system and who are the keepers of the criminal justice system.
Largely, the defendant population is mostly male, it’s mostly people of
color, and it’s mostly poor. It’s largely represented by people who are
addicted to drugs or who have some kind of confounding mental illness. I
think when you have this kind of vulnerability within a population, you
have people with unchecked power. Those things collide and allow people
to abuse and mistreat with impunity.
For example, if someone is arrested in June, they receive the clothes
they had when they were arrested in June, which doesn’t work if they go
home in November or December in Chicago. By law, sheriffs have to offer
a jacket to someone released during a Chicago winter. But the sheriffs
will tell them the jackets have bed bugs. So the people will not want to
take those jackets. These are the informal ways that sheriffs can,
under the radar of the law, outside of the law, can still inflict their
own brand of punishment. And I think in some cases this “us vs. them”
divide, this racial divide, makes it so that the defendant population is
far removed from them. They construct them as completely immoral, so
those abuses seem very natural.
Q: How did the abuses continue “beyond the walls”?
Van Cleve: You don't have to go very far into the jail itself
to see the abuse, and that's what I always say to people: You know that
abuse is rampant when it's so easy to see that anybody can show up
anytime and see it happening right in front of them. To do research for
“The Waiting Room” I dressed up as an everyday person, wearing an old
jacket and winter clothes – it was extremely cold – and I watched people
getting released. What you saw was people leaving in the cold,
desperate to get home at really late hours in the night, wearing no
coat. And everybody's running, because the jail sits in gang territory.
If you're a black defendant it can be extremely dangerous to be found
even if you're not in a gang. Just being black in Chicago, on Latino
turf, can make it very dangerous, so people are literally running for
their lives. An easy solution would be to patrol those areas, but there
is no sense that the sheriffs will create order around the jail. They
have their possessions in a plastic bag, and in many cases the money
that they might have had on them that could help them get home is put on
a Cook County-issued check. Which is basically worthless unless you can
get to a cash station to access that money. It makes it hard to get a
hot meal, and it makes it hard to get public transportation. And in
addition to having no money, they don’t have cell phones, which makes it
hard to get a cab or an Uber.
One defendant was just standing there, kind of in shock, with this
summer coat on in the winter. He said, “Where am I? What day is it?” He
had literally stopped counting the days. He had been there for about
three days but had not slept. He had no cell phone. And he was
transported on the bus with no windows where they cover the windows. You
can’t see where you're going. And, for him, he really was that
disoriented. He was like a declawed cat. He could not safely get home.
That’s what you see on a daily basis. There was one story of a man who
was arrested for stealing a winter hat to keep warm, then had to look
for a winter hat in the garbage after he was released. You realize the
cyclical nature of this whole system. That poverty leads you to steal,
and stealing leads you to be in the Cook County Jail, and then you’re
released without anything and so you’re rummaging through a Dumpster for
a hat, which was the reason you went to jail in the first place. It’s a
cruel irony. That to me is the most important part of what I do is to
make people think differently, vote differently, and to humanize those
people that are affected by the jail.
Q: What are the motivations behind the way prisoners and their families are treated?
Van Cleve: I talk a lot with my students about how the jail
guards have a vested interest in maintaining a jail population. Their
jobs are inherently safe the more people that come back. I have one
probation officer who was trying to explain to me the dynamics of repeat
offenders. She basically said it’s like throwing trash in the ocean,
they keep coming back to you. If you’re coding the people that you
oversee – the defendants, the pre-trial detainees, the people that are
charged and not convicted – as immoral or as trash, I think that’s when
people can kind of look the other way at an enormous amount of abuse.
You can have a sheriff reminiscing about somewhat of a torture technique
but yet seeing it as not a big deal or as morally justified. I think
that becomes the contradiction, how people go to work every day feeling
that they’re doing the right thing but yet inflict an enormous amount of
abuse on a population.
Q: What is the ripple effect on Chicago? On the nation and the world?
Van Cleve: People have this impression or this stereotype that
if you’re in a jail then you must have done something wrong. And I
always remind people that people in a jail are actually accused but not
convicted of a crime. And, certainly, the system is set up to convict
you. It’s a system that allows only 5 percent of all the cases that come
through it to get trials. If you actually tease out evidence we see
that there are people who are innocent in that pool of defendants who
are charged every year. Jails are in some ways special places.
The reason you’re in a jail is because you have been accused of
something and often it’s because you can’t pay your bail. In some cases
it’s only $500. But for someone who’s addicted, someone who’s in the
low-income bracket, $500 might as well be $1,500 dollars because they
just can’t pay it. So these people being in a jail is a symptom of
larger social ills. Poverty, addiction and other things – that’s why we
think about how people are treated in a jail, we have to think about it
as being a holding place for the innocent, rather than a destiny of
being guilty. That you have to have some level of presumption of
innocence. And that is where the poor and the innocent will reside until
they are in some ways forced to plead guilty. And I say forced because
if you think about the abuse in the jails, the abuse itself is so
intolerable that many people will tell their public defenders and their
defense attorneys, “what do I need to do to get out?” And “what do I
need to do” means to just say you’re guilty, even if you didn’t do it.
Your innocence shouldn’t be contingent on your wealth or your ability
to fight a case. It should be about some kind of factual evidence, and
when you add the variable of abuse in a jail, it really changes
everything about due process in America. It is the centerpiece, if you
will, about whether people have a true justice system that offers a fair
hearing on their case rather than a legal system that just keeps
bulldozing other people’s rights.
Q: How do you make this a bigger issue? How do you get people to care?
Van Cleve: One of the things that I try to do in all my
research is to educate people so they know it's occurring. I actually
get a ton of really positive feedback from people, even wealthy people,
people that are not largely affected by the criminal justice system,
people that say I have privilege, I have wealth, but I just don't
understand how this can happen. I think about that: How do we get people
that are largely unaffected by the criminal justice system or who have
money, wealth and privilege and feel like that’s so removed from their
everyday life, how do you show them what's going on? I’m trying to lift
that veil and show people the everyday realities of the misconduct and
abuse, and convey the humanity of those being mistreated and how similar
they are to all of us.
Article by Peter Bothum; photos by Maria Gaspar and courtesy of Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve