Found  /  First Person

Primary Sources are a Vibe

Historian Melanie Newport turns to eBay.

While most of the people I’m writing about have died, the main character of my story, the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC, colloquially referred to as Cook County Jail), is still very much alive. Jails are distinct from prisons as local institutions of confinement for pre-trial detention and short sentences; they are political institutions that prioritize controlling marginalized people. 

My book tells the story of racialized justifications for jailing in Chicago from its founding up until now, with particular attention to the heyday of jail reform from the 1950s to the 1970s. People had high hopes for jails as engines of rehabilitation and job training, but over the course of the twentieth century, these politics changed. 

The jail came to house a predominantly Black population. Today, CCDOC is run by Sheriff Tom Dart, who does everything he can to make sure the conversation about jails does not touch on race. He likes to control the narrative. When everyone was talking about mass incarceration, he became famous as a reformer for branding the jail as a mental health facility. This year, he’s been trying to maintain this image. He wants everyone to know that he’s still a good guy in spite of COVID deaths in the jail. Right now, his body count is 10.

Most historians are waiting for the archives to reopen. I never had that option. I am buying sources for my book on eBay because of state failure. Unlike most major cities, Chicago lacks a municipal archive and centralized retention practices. This means that the city jails that were merged into the CCDOC in 1968 are all but scrubbed; the papers of the city’s mayors that are scattered across Chicago libraries. Records requests to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office have been either rejected or ignored. The CCDOC was used to consolidate the power of sheriffs, just as activists in the 1960s feared. 

Do the jail’s official historical records even exist?  I have been told that have been destroyed. I’ve also been told that some might exist. I have seen l documents that speak to the jail’s politics through government documents and legal records, they don’t say much about what jail means to people. I had to get creative. Inspired by historians of religion who use the #ebaymethod to unpack everyday religious life, collecting objects and images that people use for daily devotion and affirmation of religious identity, I have made a daily devotion of searching eBay for literally anything that will help me feel connected to this institution’s past.