From the Outside Looking In

Eye-Opening Field Trip Raises Questions

On February 25, students from upper school history teacher Jeanne Barr’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group designed to educate students about sensible drug policy and the War on Drugs, visited Cook County Jail in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood for a guard-led walking tour of the jail. The group viewed the cells, the recreation area, the cafeteria, and many other areas.

At one moment, when Parker students made eye contact with the inmates through a glass window, while the inmates were milling about in the rec area, the inmates started howling at the students and banging on the glass, creating discomfort. The guards had to tell them to quiet down and at one point started screaming at them and threatening them with punishment.

A very interesting discussion arose within the group when our SSDP group was debriefing the visit. Some students, such as myself, truly thought the trip was eye-opening and very informative because all but two inmates were African-American or Latino, which showed how corrupt and unfair our legal system is to minorities.

Other students in the group, including junior Leigh Logan, argued that visiting the jail was immoral and unethical because they viewed the trip was like, “going into someone’s home and making a spectacle out of their situation and living space.” Logan also said that the trip would cement stereotypes. “Some of the only things my classmates will remember from the trip is the men of color banging on the windows,” Logan said,” “as the girls in my class walked by.”

While I agree that this trip can be taken as a racially false interpretation of our justice system, I think that the takeaway from this trip should be about race, because it shows how crooked the American justice system is.

The trip was an astonishing experience and should be essential for every student to learn about. It showed me that racial bias is undeniable in America’s justice system in that the vast majority of the inmates in the jail are people of color who could not afford to pay bail, which means they are held for months, sometimes years, at a time for potentially non-violent crimes or procedural violations. Many of these inmates would likely be released into society if they had the money to afford it. What this trip shows is a system that discriminates against the poor and against communities of color.

It also shows that so many of the people detained are part of drug crime networks, or have committed nonviolent offenses. The trip demonstrated that the War on Drugs is an engine of injustice in our country and in our city.

Students learn at Parker that mass incarceration is a form of social control employed to marginalize people––and the Cook County Jail is one cog in that well-oiled machine. It’s easy to see––if you go––the extent to which not every segment of our culture or our community is being held to the same standards.

I think that this trip is essential for Parker students to become educated about before they enter college and the real world. In an open society, there never should be institutions like jails closed off to the public. If Parker strives to nurture civically active citizens, students should know that it is the duty of the public to familiarize themselves with what goes on inside these institutions as a way of holding the government accountable and making sure that the inmates are treated fairly. It’s a matter of human rights.