The Cook County Jail is part of the Cook County Department of Corrections, a sprawling 96-acre detention complex situated next to the Cook County Criminal Courts along California Avenue in Chicago’s Lower West Side neighborhood. Most refer to it as “26th and Cal” even though the jail stretches all the way south to 32nd St, a distance of nearly a mile.
The first County jail in Chicago was built in 1871 on the now historical site of 26th Street and California Avenue scant months before the Great Chicago Fire. That building is long gone, replaced in 1929 by what is now the oldest remaining building in the complex, Division 1. This squat art-deco structure has over the years, they boast, held a fine pedigree of criminal luminaries including Al Capone and Frank Nitti, Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, gang leaders Larry Hoover, Jeff Fort and Willie Lloyd, and serial killers Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy.
Between 1929 and 1995 the jail complex was expanded into eleven separate divisions that range from minimum security to super-max. Cook County is the largest single-site pre-trial detention facility in the United States (Los Angeles has a bigger overall county jail, but it is split into two separate facilities). CCDOC employs more than 3,000 correctional officers and support staff and admits over 100,000 detainees a year, more than twice that of the entire Illinois penitentiary system. The reported average daily inmate population is around 10,000. The real figure, however, is quite likely higher since, due to overcrowding, it is a regular practice to put a third man in a two-man cell, sleeping on the floor.
It is also one of the most controversial correctional facilities in the nation, referred to by inmate and officer alike as the “Crook County Department of Corruptions.”
In recent years the jail has come under fire for overcrowding, violence, and, naturally, corruption. There have been all manner of federal and Grand Jury investigations, and plaintiff lawsuits, into excessive beatings and inmate deaths at the hands of correctional officers. And if they didn’t already have enough bad PR to defuse, between 2005 and 2006 there were a series of high profile escapes.
In June of 2005 an inmate named Randy Rencher walked right out the front door wearing a correctional officer’s uniform and proceeded to rob a series of Chicago banks, sparking a nationwide manhunt featured on America’s Most Wanted. On February 10th of 2006, Warren Mathis became the first inmate to escape from the new Division 11 “Super Max” unit by hiding in a laundry truck. Two days later, six inmates were allowed to escape in what the Chicago Sun Times called “a plan to give a political advantage to a former jail supervisor [Thomas Dart] running for sheriff” by making then-Sheriff Michael Sheehan look incompetent. It worked. Rather than face defeat, Sheehan, who had been Sheriff for sixteen years, retired, making way for Dart (a Chicago Democrat) who took over in December of 2006.
Welcome to Chicago
Anyone who has had the misfortune of being behind its walls knows all too well about the violence, corruption and squalor that characterizes this institution. Simply put, Cook County Jail is a harrowing, unforgettable experience for anyone. It is so awful that for many of its detainees a quick guilty plea and a trip to the penitentiary, even for twice as long, is preferable to staying in the County. It is the proverbial lesser of two evils.
Or at least that was how I saw it when I was arrested in March of 2005 for possession of fourteen capsules of MDMA and was facing one year in prison.
To be fair, this was my third time in County. My first stay was for a month in December of 1998 when I was busted for the second of three drug related convictions I have on my record. The first two convictions came in the late 1990s, the result of nearly a decade spent in high-intensity guerrilla warfare against a cocaine addiction while in my twenties. The MDMA conviction was seven years (and really, a whole lifetime) later, a week after my thirty-fifth birthday.
I had just returned to Chicago after spending most of the previous year on the road writing for Newtopia, an online magazine I published at the time, and organizing for the Green Party and other related factions of the progressive-to-radical anti-war and green movements. I was back in town to face a court case I had that stemmed from an assault by tactical officers (TAC squad) of the 23rd District of the Chicago Police Department, Addison Street station one year before in April of 2004. I was illegally stopped and searched, and ultimately beaten and arrested on false charges, by four plain clothes police officers who discovered I was connected to a local peace and justice group that was involved in fighting police corruption.
The charges against me were dismissed and the judge who heard the case acknowledged wrong doing by the police. From that moment forth I can only assume that, fearing a civil rights case which I fully intended to file, these cops were committed to stopping me somehow. I was watched, I was followed, and a few weeks later I was rousted, and ultimately arrested for having the ecstasy by TAC squad officers from the same precinct house, one of whom I later identified as one of the four present the night of my assault.
It’s important for me to take a moment here and explain that I was not using ecstasy recreationally. I wasn’t a “raver” and I didn’t merely transfer an addiction from one substance to another. I was reintroduced to MDMA in a therapeutic context in 2004. Prior to that it had been since the early 90’s that I had even taken a single dose.
Friends from my community in Chicago, who were fellow drug war activists, were also intimately connected to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, who had done pioneering work on MDMA therapy for those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of these friends, as well as psychotherapeutic professionals I knew at the time, helped me to see that I was suffering from a form of PTSD brought on by the effects of violent experiences in my past and my prolonged addiction to cocaine, and that some form of MDMA therapy might help me.
Although at the time there were no clinical studies available in the US, much less a regulated program of treatment (in other words, because I couldn’t do it legally) I had enough information and guidance to feel comfortable, and risk, experimenting on my own. Although later on in the book I will go into detail about the specifics of the therapeutic work I did that began with MDMA and other substances and then led to more traditional therapies, it’s important to understand that this was the reason I was in-possession of the MDMA at the time of my third arrest, two weeks after my 35th birthday. It was a risk I was willing to take, and I do not regret it. The experiences chronicled in this book led to a complete transformation of consciousness which would over the next four years completely transform every aspect of my life.
I understand I broke the law, and so, many will see my punishment as deserved. The case I will make is that the laws surrounding drug use are unjust, particularly for those drugs with the capacity to heal, the punishment does not fit the crime, and in fact does far worse damage, and that my experiences reveal that the system itself is broken, a self-perpetuating machine of dysfunction that remains in place for reasons wholly separate than either drug enforcement or criminal justice. In many ways, it is about cognitive liberty above all--the freedom to learn, heal, and grow however you wish by whatever methods you choose, the freedom to experience life in the manner of your choosing.
After I was arrested I would spend three months dealing with my case until it became clear to me and my lawyer that with a third conviction and a precinct house full of over-zealous cops hell-bent on covering their collective asses, I could not avoid prison time.
This was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for two reasons. The first and most galling was that I was no longer a drug addict. I took great pride in that. Breaking that addiction was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I was long past engaging in any of the at-risk activities that led to my first two arrests and convictions. The second reason was that the substances I was being punished for having in my possession had helped me immeasurably, in a very short time, begin to face demons that had been consuming me my whole life. I considered them my friends.
What was all the more ironic was that as I was recovering, probably as a direct result, I spent a few years investigating the drug war in great detail and had begun writing about it. I also got involved in activism trying to reform drug laws through various lobby efforts. I had been building a respectable body of work, and in that work I had been steady about one thing: our national drug policy was absurd and had no impact on either drug use or supply. It was economics, moral policing, and social control, and it disproportionately punished the poor. I constantly argued that warehousing drug users as prisoners was a waste of public resources that were better spent on our communities, and that there were better things drug users could be made to do. The irony was not lost on me that I was now living proof of my own theories.
Thus I returned to Cook County Jail on July 1, 2005, after accepting a guilty plea and taking a two year sentence (one year in the penitentiary and one year of parole) let’s be clear…for having a few pills in my pocket that made me want to give everyone I knew a hug. But that’s an argument for later on.
I had to surrender myself in the courtroom and be led away through that mysterious back door behind the judge that the public never gets to see. As I stepped through it, I turned and smiled goodbye to my friends gathered in the courtroom for support, and I didn’t take a normal breath for months. As the door closed behind me I literally had to put on another persona, one which I would keep until they let me out and I could go back to being myself, which would take far longer than I ever imagined. In many respects, I never did.
I entered what is known as “Dead Time,” or the time a convict spends in the county jail awaiting shipment to the penitentiary system, which, no matter how long it takes, does not count towards the overall sentence. It was also literally dead time in my life, vita interruptus, weeks and months taken from me. Though I harmed no one and nothing, I was now part of an exile nation of American radicals, convicts and detainees millions strong, where I would burn off my “sins” in service to the State, in what is commonly known as the “Prison-Industrial Complex.”
Exile Nation will appear in weekly excerpts throughout 2010 on Reality Sandwich. To read the rest of Chapter One, and the Introduction, visit the book page for more information.