Behind the bars

Usually hidden behind a wall of brick, steel, and barbed wire, the Cook County Jail and Courthouse was opened to the public for a short time this past Saturday, as part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago series. That is, the jail was open to those who were willing to go through an extensive background check prior to arriving, and those who promised to behave once inside.

Last Saturday upright citizens from around the city arrived to catch a glimpse of society’s outlaws in their “natural” habitat, the architecturally imposing zoo that holds them.

The Cook County Jail and Court House is the largest jail in the country, housing an average of 9,000 inmates daily. Incorporating large columns, Greek-inspired statues, and neoclassical architecture, when Cook County Jail was built in 1929 it represented yet another attempt for young Chicago to join the ranks of world-class cities, with the elegant architecture to prove it. Lieutenant Joseph Guinta, one of the tour guides who has worked at the jail for the past 22 years, is very proud of this architectural monument, referring to the structure as “the best built building in the country” on numerous occasions.

The courthouse is made of hand-cut Indiana limestone, the high ceilings are hand-painted in an intricate, geometric design, and brass fixtures are ubiquitous throughout the building. But while the exterior and the courthouse were extravagant structures with intricate, high-minded symbols of justice and wisdom, the interior of the maximum security Division I jail provided a stark contrast. The spaces for those on the inside are not nearly so luxurious.

The prison cells do not conform to state standards, Guinta said. But because the building is so old, the state of Illinois grants Cook County Jail a waiver every year. Each cell consists of two beds, a toilet, and a sink, but there is hardly any room for inmates to walk, even a few feet. The ceilings hang low, and there are no windows. Behind bars, tired inmates looked out. The tour guides felt that it would be safer for the tourists to only witness the behavior of the weaker, older inmates–the prisoners were all around 40 years-old. The visitors only got to peek into two of the prisoners’ quarters, but the rows of cells seemed to go on forever.

These quarters would be pretty terrible living conditions for even the most hardened criminals. But Cook County Jail only houses those accused of crimes who are awaiting trial, not convicts. Guinta, an obstinate believer in the justice and prison system said, “These people aren’t used to following the rules and regulations of society. What makes you think that they’re going to follow ours? We can barely manage them under these constraints. Imagine if these constraints didn’t exist.”