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Professor examines impact of abuse in Chicago's Cook County Jail, nearby community

​Families in Chicago live alongside one of the nation's largest jails and are affected by mass incarceration.

As someone who researched Chicago’s criminal court system for over a decade, University of Delaware faculty member Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve was not surprised that the Cook County Jail was often the site of abuse for detainees awaiting trial. It is one of the largest single-site jail in the United States and stretches 72 football fields.

What was eye-opening, she said, was the extent to which the abuse extended beyond the walls of the jail even after release. Again, not unique, but when you’re talking about a population that hovers around 6,000, you’re talking about a massive impact on a community. 

Van Cleve, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, tells the stories of prisoners and their loved ones in her new story, “The Waiting Room.” It is part of a five-part series called “Southside: Waiting for Justice in Chicago” and is a partnership with The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organization and Amazon Original Stories.

“The Waiting Room” is available through and will be released to the public through The Marshall Project’s “Southside” website:  

“One of the things I wanted to expose is how suffering and punishment in that jail really seeps into the communities and to the people that are not actually charged or convicted,” Van Cleve said. “So everyone, from families to witnesses to the descendants themselves are experiencing a type of punishment that we think is contained in a jail that is really alive and well within the communities themselves affected by mass incarceration.”

Van Cleve answered a few questions about “The Waiting Room,” the Cook County Jail and the criminal justice system in America.

Q: What inspired you to pursue this story?

Van Cleve: I was conducting a decade-long study of the criminal courthouse in Chicago, and at the time I had a lot of access to [Cook County] Sheriff’s officers in the court. They’re omnipresent in the courthouse, taking defendants to and from the courthouse and maintaining order. And what I saw was they often engaged in abusive practices in the court. Like in broad daylight, in front of judges and prosecutors. And, really, their power seemed very much unchecked.

​Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, associate professor of sociology

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

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Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, explores the abuses that occur in Chicago's  county jail and their impact on the community.

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, explores the abuses that occur in Chicago's  Cook County jail and their impact on the surrounding community.

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