Artists reflect on living next to Cook County Jail

96 Acres, "Weight of Rage" exhibit at Hyde Park Art Center.
96 Acres, "Weight of Rage" exhibit at Hyde Park Art Center.

By Misha Euceph

Artists from the Prison and Neighborhood Project (PNAP) are holding listen and response sessions to get feedback on a series of interviews with inmates from Cook County Jail and West Side residents who live next to the 96-acre property.

“It’s important to come up with a counter narrative against such a brutal space, a counter narrative about who criminals are,” said Maria Gaspar, Assistant Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “As artists we’re also thinking about how incarceration affects communities of color,” Gaspar added.

The neighborhood surrounding the jail is known as South Lawndale or Little Village, an area that is 83 percent Hispanic and 13 percent black, according to Rob Paral and Associates, a consulting group that researches community data.

The reflection project,  called “Listening and Response Session with 96 Acres” and hosted by Gaspar and and Chicago artist Michael Johnson held its first session at the Hyde Park Art Center on Feb. 20. It aimed to provide “a more human perspective on incarceration” by focusing on the recorded stories of those housed in one of the nation’s largest single site pre-detention facilities and those who deal daily with the presence of that facility in their neighborhood, according to the Hyde Park Art Center website.

In conjunction with Chicago Public Media’s Vocalo, the 96 Acres team conducted the interviews during a limited public broadcast of B.B. King’s 1970 performance, “Live in Cook County Jail,” that was heard only in the jail and parking lot.

The Cook County Department of Corrections, or the Cook County Jail, located at 2700 South California Ave., admits roughly 100,000 detainees annually and averages a daily population of 9,000. Established in 1831, the jail is currently home to about 6,500 black inmates and 1,400 Latino/Hispanic inmates, according to the population manager at Cook County Jail. The recent numbers put the population of the jail at 73 percent black, in contrast to the county’s total population, which is only 24 percent black.

“I don’t know anyone who says, ‘I’m so glad I went to Cook County. I really got my life together,’” said a unnamed West Side resident whose interview was played during the response session. The same man also reflected on the presence of the jail in his neighborhood. “It’s right next door. You come out of your house, it’s the first thing you see.”

After playing the interviews at the response session, Johnson and Gaspar led a series of activities to reflect on what the 24 attendees heard. Some activities included finding a partner and staring into the partner’s eyes for several minutes, writing words that came to mind during the interview, and interpreting the collective and individual feelings resulting from the presence of the jail.

Despite the dominating presence of the jail in Little Village, community members express their inability to connect with those inside. “There are all these walls separating you,” said Andrew Ardelean, a Chicago resident. “You just feel like you have to permeate your way in. And then you just get sucked in. You want to be in there to see your loved one, but you also just want to get away.”

“It’s really difficult to make that connection,” stressed Elyse Blenerhassett, one of the artists who conducted interviews with the inmates.

A phone call to or from Cook County Jail costs more than $2 for a 15-minute stretch. Cook County contracts with Securus Technologies for phone calls to and from the jail. From 2008 to 2015, the phone calls generated approximately $60 million in revenue with the county, making $26 million in commissions, according to county data.

“On the phone calls, it’s a big wall,” added Peter Kuttner, another Chicago resident and attendee. “There’s an issue about the cost of the call to inmates.”

“I hope that the community understands the complex environment,” said Sarah Ross, one of the 96 Acres organizers from PNAP. “Everybody has the hope that we can change something.”

Photo at top: “Weight of Rage” exhibit, where the community members engaged in a series of activities about 96 Acres. (Misha Euceph/MEDILL)