Resource: "We Live 24/7 in Hell": Detroit's Wayne County Jail, 1968-76

By: Dominic Coschino

July 1, 2020

The history of Detroit's Wayne County Jail in the late 1960s and 1970s also includes a much less well known story with lessons for today: the response of radical activists who mobilized against mass incarceration and demanded racial and economic justice. As more poor and black Detroiters flowed into the jail, radical attorneys worked with inmates to sue the county government over its conditions, but they did not stop there. They also challenged the widely accepted idea that those in the jail were dangerous criminals, instead arguing that the entire criminal justice system in Detroit deliberately operated to oppress and control poor black residents. The inmates won their case, but the legal victory resulted in only modest reform of the physical conditions of the jail. The Wayne County Circuit Court continued to hold that those in jail represented some unique danger to the community. While some of the jail's worst abuses slowly improved, the city continued to arrest and imprison more people. The foundational injustice of the jail remained: the institutional criminalization of the poor, black, and mentally ill people locked inside. After almost fifty years, the legal battle continues to this day and reveals that a limited reformist approach has failed to address the real injustice of institutionalized abuse in Detroit's jail.