SSDP Students Visit Cook County Jail Culture for the Last Time

Why it Will Be Missed

As a member of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) Civic Engagement group, I toured Division XI of Cook County Jail on February 25. Division XI is a medium-security facility that houses 1,536 male detainees, according to

During our visit, I saw the jail’s cafeteria, cells, gym, school, and visiting facilities. I was also given the opportunity to speak with one of the inmates. By the end of the tour, I was absolutely astonished. It was insightful not only to see how one of the most important institutions of criminal justice functioned, but also to analyze its correlation to themes I was studying in my U.S. History course.

At our next meeting, Upper School history teacher Jeanne Barr, the SSDP faculty leader, informed us that touring the jail was soon to be prohibited by the Cook County Sheriff. Barr asked the SSDP Civic Engagement group about whether discontinuing visits to the Cook County Jail was a valid decision. With a fierce loyalty to my opinion, I answered no.  

By visiting the prison, we, as a group, simply seized the opportunity to learn more about the lives of prisoners and to witness mass incarceration. Mass incarceration was a prevalent topic for us because we were reading in Barr’s U.S. History course a 2010 book called “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, which argues that people of color have been targeted by the police system. Alexander’s message was strengthened by our visit to the jail because we were able to see the racial disparity of Cook County jail.

Some students argued that visiting the jail was morally incorrect because we were invading the prisoners’ residences. That we were observing “fish in a fishbowl.”

But at times, I thought we were the fish in the fishbowl. When the inhabitants of the jail saw our group one time, a number of prisoners were banging on the windows of the rooms furiously, yelling out sexist terms or just screaming. During this commotion, the prisoners were peering into a fishbowl that contained startled students who did not know what to do.  

So it is unfair to conclude that students were invading the spaces of the prisoners, when they clearly tried to do the same to us. If they don’t think that’s unfair, then the SSDP group should play on equal terms.

The power of inquiry should prevail over what may seem like the invasion of the prisoners’ residences. We took the opportunity to learn more about the Chicago community and observe cultural trends, such as mass incarceration, that have deep historical roots.

If any student had a strong distaste or repulsion for the visit, then that student should not have come. All students understood the content of what we were doing and seeing. Participants opted to  voluntarily visit the jail when they signed waiver. Parents had to sign the waiver as well, which means that the adults believed that the benefits to visiting the jail outweighed their perceived costs, if any.

Going forward, I am not sure how future SSDP groups will be able to properly visualize mass incarceration. Maybe they can watch a movie, or look at some pictures. But no digital visual can ever be as powerful as going to the jail itself.