“Everything out of your pockets! Jackets and belts off! No cell phones!” We comply to the barking orders from the officers as we line up in the cold outside Division V among the girlfriends, mothers, and small children of the men held there. A four-year old, who, based on Chicago statistics probably does not know her ABC’s, has already mastered putting her arms out in the stance to be frisked by security so she can visit her dad.
There’s nothing about this process that promotes dignity or compassion. After making it through the metal detectors, pat down, background check, and a second round of metal detectors and pat downs, we are ready to visit.
We walk a mother through the process to see her son. This hassle grants the opportunity for her to spend 15 minutes shouting through a scratched-glass wall, leaning over the counter to get her ear level with the speaking hole to hear, and attempting to block out everyone else’s shouting as they talk to their own loved ones directly beside her. Despite the struggle, mother and son catch up the best they can, and laughter and jokes are shared between the two family members. It strikes me—these cages and safeguards are for this young man, beaming with a warm smile and discussing the latest book he has read. He is much more lost than he is dangerous.
He speaks to us about some of the conditions while he is locked up. There is a prevalence of inmate-on-inmate violence, unsanitary conditions, and poor food quality, among other issues. Gang members spend more time educating and recruiting inmates than they do repenting from their practices. In 2008, Cook County Jail was condemned for its poor treatment of inmates reaching unconstitutional levels (Full Report here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/18/us/18cook.html). While the jail has no doubt improved since then, it is not a model for humane treatment.
It is a nightmare that no parent would want their child to endure.
This is not an inspiring type of place, full of mentoring, role models, or life-changing programs for our inmates. It is a place that strips a person of their dignity.
How many people have you heard of were arrested once, served for several years, and then had a great, criminal-free life afterwards? While there are no doubt some exceptions, most re-emerging to society are angry, without opportunities, and seek solace among those who have faced similar conditions.
Other parts of our penal system create the same issues. Court cases are granted numerous continuances that drag cases on for months, straining the wills of both sides. The object of the prosecutor is to prove the defendant is beyond hope to change. Trials expose the worst as traumatized victims are torn to shreds by the defense. Meanwhile, ex-felons hustle on the streets because they are prevented from getting a real job, despite having “paid their debt to society.”
How did we decide as a nation that this was the best solution to the problem of crime? While the system is not necessarily unjust, it is certainly not helpful in rehabilitating young men. While there absolutely needs to be a justice system, the current one seeks punishment more than justice. Is our goal punishment or correction? While we cannot ignore the dangers of criminals, we also cannot correct without compassion and forgiveness.
Right now, inmates are not the only ones imprisoned. We are imprisoned by our inability to find restorative justice methods aimed at reconnecting “lost ones” back into society. Jesus calls us to take an active part in caring for our lost members, and these members need hope that they can belong.
–Megan Sherrier, BSL
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