Detroit as a Carceral Space

The Detroit as a Carceral Space initiative is a Documenting Criminalization and Confinement research collaboration with the Michigan-Mellon Project on Egalitarianism and the Metropolis and community organizations in Southeast Michigan, including the Detroit Justice Center. The Michigan-Mellon Project is based in U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and, in 2019, expanded its mission to connect design professionals with the urban humanities through a new Detroit-focused partnership with the College of LSA. The Detroit Justice Center is a nonprofit law firm, led by Amanda Alexander (a Carceral State Project community liaison), that works alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities.

The DCC-Mellon partnership, through the Detroit as a Carceral Space initiative, involves collaborative and community-based research into the historical and contemporary conditions of egalitarian-oriented topics in the city of Detroit and its surrounding region, focused on policing, criminalization, incarceration, and other central DCC themes. For Detroit-based themes related to police violence, please also visit the Policing and Criminalization page.

Detroit as a Carceral Space: Investigative Reports

Detroit’s Carceral Landscape: Police, Politics, and Profit in America’s Blackest City–and How Detroiters are Reimagining the Future” by David Helps and Christine Hwang. This multimedia investigative report documents how settler colonialism and racial capitalism are intertwined processes, historically and in the present, that extract wealth from Black neighborhoods through land clearance, land theft, policing and criminalization, gentrification, and corporate handouts. These processes have transformed the city of Detroit into a carceral space, made the Downtown “renaissance” dependent on foreclosures and police violence, and inspired radical resistance politics as Detroiters continue to imagine and work for a co-liberatory future. Published May 2021.

Project Green Light: Surveillance and the Spaces of the City” by Rebecca Smith. This investigative report assesses Project Green Light, a “public-private partnership” between the Detroit Police Department and local businesses that install surveillance cameras to transmit live video feeds to the DPD’s “Real Time Crime Center.” The report provides data visualizations of the six most common Project Green Light typologies—gas stations, apartment complexes, schools, shopping plazas, restaurants, and corner stores—and emphasizes the dangerous and pernicious consequences of this surveillance technology. “Project Green Light” demonstrates that the city of Detroit’s claims that surveillance technology has reduced crime and made residents safer is not based on any compelling evidence. Published April 2021.     

Wayne County Jail Documentation Project

We Live 24/7 in Hell” is a multimedia report that chronicles the inhumane conditions and racist oppression in Detroit’s Wayne County Jail from 1968-1976. Then as now, a large majority of those incarcerated were poor African Americans in pretrial detention and convicted of no crime. The report reproduces dozens of documents about the experiences of incarcerated people, including affidavits and testimony from the lawsuit filed by a radical coalition. Researched and created by Dominic Coschino for the DCC-Mellon partnership.
Infographic #1 for “We Live 24/7 in Hell.” This infographic synthesizes key information and visuals from the investigative report. In the overcrowded jail–declared “unfit for human habitation” by a watchdog group in 1968–people arrested for minor offenses or for no crime at all slept on the floor amid raw sewage, faced beatings from the “goon squad,” were thrown into “the hole” for complaints, and on multiple occasions committed suicide. Created by Dominic Coschino and designed by Rinika Prince.


Infographic #2 for “We Live 24/7 in Hell.” This infographic combines an architectural reconstruction of a cell block in the Wayne County Jail with eight firsthand accounts of people incarcerated there. By 1971, 85% of those held in the jail were African American, and 90% were poor. Their testimonies describe guilty pleas just to escape the jail (by going to prison), miscarriages, attempted suicides, brutality and racist abuse, and deprivation of medical care. Created by Dominic Coschino and designed by Rinika Prince.


Detroit Police Department: Documenting Police Violence, Misconduct, and Racial Criminalization

Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era. This multimedia digital exhibit, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, documents police brutality and misconduct, policies of racial criminalization, and civil rights/black power activism in the city of Detroit between 1957 and 1973. The research team uncovered 188 police killings of civilians during this time period and mapped these patterns alongside other brutality incidents. The exhibit reproduces more than 1,500 archival documents and explores themes such as police defense of the color line, increased law enforcement militarization, the Detroit Uprising of 1967, and the STRESS unit that killed 22 people between 1971-1973.


Detroit Under Fire: Mapping Police Violence and Misconduct” (1957-1973)” Series. This five-part map series synthesizes the research findings and documented incidents of police violence and misconduct contained in Detroit Under Fire. The map series is designed for use in high school and college classrooms and provides an alternative, streamlined way to explore the main themes and key events covered in the Detroit Under Fire exhibit. The five chronologically organized StoryMaps document 188 fatal shootings and other law enforcement homicides, and more than 400 additional brutality and misconduct incidents, through dozens of interactive maps and other visual and documentary features.
Investigative Report Series based on the Detroit Under Fire exhibit. The Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab is creating a series of multimedia investigative reports drawn from Detroit Under Fire. Reports released so far include an investigation of the fatal police shooting of Cynthia Scott in 1963; the crusade for justice by Barbara Jackson against the DPD in 1964; the “crash program” that resulted in the illegal arrests of 1,500 Black males in 1960-1961; an expose of hidden police violence inside precinct stations during the civil rights era; the Kercheval Incident of 1966; and the New Bethel Incident of 1969. Click here for all reports or visit the Policing and Criminalization page.

DCC Researchers: Public Commentary on Detroit Themes

Matthew Lassiter, director of Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, published “Police and the License to Kill” in Boston Review (April 29, 2021), presenting the research findings of the Detroit Under Fire exhibit, including patterns of police killings of 188 people between 1957-1973 and frequent coverups.
David Helps published “Covid-19 Outbreaks at Jails and Prisons Should Make Us Rethink Incarceration” in the Made by History section of the Washington Post (June 25, 2020), drawing in part from the DCC publication “We Live 24/7 in Hell: Detroit’s Wayne County Jail, 1968-1976.”
David Helps published “The Police: Gentrification’s Shock Troops” in Public Books (Nov. 3, 2020). “If you want to understand what US cities will become in the future, look–again–to Detroit.”
David Helps, Ph.D. student in History and co-coordinator of the “Detroit as a Carceral Space” research initiative, published “How UM’s Center of Innovation at Failed Jail Site Will Fail Detroiters” in Detroit Metro Times (January 8, 2020).
Matt Lassiter, director of Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, published “Demise of STRESS, Detroit’s Deadliest Police Squad, Began with Death of Teens” in the Detroit Free Press, Sept, 5, 2021. The “Free Press Flashback” column revisits the Detroit Under Fire expose of the police department coverup of the killings of Ricardo Buck and Craig Mitchell in 1971 as part of a 50th anniversary commemoration.

Dominic Coschino, a research associate with the Carceral State Project, published “Cockrel, Ravitz and Inmates Take on the Wayne County Jail” in the Detroit Free Press, Jan. 16, 2022. The “Free Press Flashback” column revisits the landmark 1970s lawsuit against inhumane jail conditions and the exploitative cash bail system, based on Coschino’s DCC investigative report “We Live 24/7 in Hell.”