|Serial — the blockbuster podcast that previously covered two criminal cases in-depth — is turning its attention to the big picture of America’s criminal justice system. To do this, hosts Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi spent two years reporting on criminal justice in one particular city:
Cleveland was large enough to illustrate the many troubling aspects of the criminal justice system (In the eight minute trailer posted earlier this week, Koenig lists off: “extra charges loaded onto a case, pressure to plead, shabby police work, a police officer possibly lying on the stand, 11th hour evidence shoe-horned into a trial, overworked attorneys, dozing jurors, dozing judge and finally, an out-sized prison sentence.”). But Cleveland was also small enough to be manageable for two reporters with wide-ranging access.
It’s clear that Serial wants to use Cleveland as an example to help listeners better understand criminal justice where they live. But Cleveland is already where I live.
This season of Serial is a unique opportunity to dive into exactly what is happening in the “Mistake on the Lake.” I am going to write a response to each week’s episode with historical context and commentary which might not make it into a podcast, especially when the podcast is focused on the lessons the country can learn from Cleveland, rather than on Cleveland itself.
You do not need to convince me that Serial’s deep dive on Cleveland will reveal some egregious behavior and systemic miscarriages of justice. Koenig has already picked up on one frustration common for anybody who has been involved with social justice or activism in this city:
Although it’s trite, each week I’ll also try to include a snippet of some positive news story or resource from around Cleveland. I don’t want to cover up or whitewash the difficult stories being told, but I do want to add depth to what is happening in this city. I’ve lived in Chicago, the Bay Area, and New York. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we had the chance to make Cleveland better.
Historical Context: The Justice Center
In response to the trailer that dropped this week, I want to share some history on The Justice Center, the large building in the heart of downtown where Serial listeners will be spending a lot of time in the coming weeks (and where the audio for the trailer was also recorded).
The Justice Center is supposed to be a one-stop-shop for criminal justice in Cleveland. It comprises jail facilities, police headquarters as well as numerous courtrooms for the county and municipal courts. As early as the 1920s, Cleveland was receiving national attention for its failed criminal justice infrastructure. But it took another 50 years for the various governmental bodies and court systems to agree on a combined facility, obtain funding, and build it. In 1971, years into the planning process, Alan D. Wright, Director of the Administration of Justice Committee told the Plain Dealer that, “with the help of a panel of experts in penology we are setting up guidelines for a complete correctional program. . . We believe we’ll have the most progressive corrections center in the nation.” The Justice Center opened in September 1976 with the first courtrooms up and running within the next few weeks.
(Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library)
(Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library)
Sam Ervin — the famed North Carolina senator who had led the Watergate hearings — spoke at the building’s dedication. Perhaps fitting for a building that would see so many people churned through a systematically racist and classist justice system, Ervin made a point of saying at the dedication that it was the duty of a citizen to “obey all laws, even those he believes are wrong.”
(Justice Center Inauguration in the building atrium, September 15, 2018. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library. The Plain Dealer coverage from the day before is also interesting as it features advertisements from numerous local builders involved in the project. There was obviously a lot of local pride in the opening.)
The Justice Center was only meant to meet population demands through 1995. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, there was such significant overcrowding that the County added additional space to the jail, bringing the entire complex to over 2.3 million square feet. In the 2000s, Cleveland’s Call and Postregularly documented protests of the conditions at the jail (full text articles from the Call and Postare available on ProQuest with a Cleveland Public Library Card or you can reach out to me directly for links). There have been regular lapses in safety and security in the jail, and inmates have died in the facility in recent years. More generally the building’s structure is deteriorating and increasingly outdated. In my work, I spend most of my time in the municipal housing court on the 13th Floor, which has had the faint stench of a sewer ever since a water tank explosion in 2017 damaged some of the courtrooms higher in the building.
(Source: Cleveland.com. A flooded courtroom after a water tank explosion.)
As of 2018, the future of the building is uncertain. Most recently Cuyahoga County funded a $800,000 report to determine uses for the building. But for the time being, most municipal and county courtrooms are still in the building — and they look almost exactly like they did in 1976. At the very least, however, the building is wheelchair accessible — when the elevators are working, that is. When I was reviewing old Plain Dealer articles for this project, I came across a blurb on this pre-ADA “courtroom” in nearby Cleveland Heights in 1976.
There wasn’t a lot in the eight-minute trailer to turn into a positive shout-out for this first response. But Koenig does mention the owner of a small local ice cream shop, and I didn’t want to let the summer end without mentioning a few others. Catheryn Greene opened her ice cream sandwich shop at age 26 after going through the Bad Girl Ventures accelerator program here in Cleveland. Helen Qin and Jesse Mason opened Mason’s Creamery in 2014, and Alton Brown apparently said that their apple cider sorbet was the best thing he ate in Cleveland when he visited town that year. (Personally I found their rosemary salted caramel ice cream to be my favorite this season.) Finally you can break the bank with a $1.50 junior cone or a $2.00 regular cone at Daisy’s, a walk-up ice cream stand in the heart of Slavic Village that was reopened this summer under new management after Ray and Daisy Pudelski, who had run it for for 40 years, decided to retire.
Clockwise from top left: Mason’s Ice Cream (Instagram: masonscreamer), Cathy’s (Instagram: Cathyscle), Cathy’s (Instagram: Cathyscle), Daisy’s (Instagram: iceicedaisys), Mason’s Ice Cream (Instagram: masonscreamer), Daisy’s (Instagram: iceicedaisys). All reproduced with permission.
If you’re local, visit one of these places or one of our many other small seasonable businesses before they close for the autumn.
That’s all for now. I’ll be back after the first full episode of Serial drops on September 20th.