Yes, the above is clickbait. But I did spend years visiting all the prisons in Illinois and all the divisions of the Cook County Jail, all the children’s prisons and the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. With the John Howard Association, a local not-for-profit prison watchdog group.
I was a JHA board member for a long time. And our board duties included making these visits to see what we could see, talking to the inmates, oftentimes right in their cells–for a confidential discussion about what was wrong. What could we do to help? What could we expose in our reports? What needs attention? What needs fixing?
We talked to the newly arrested and the newly convicted, those with long sentences and life sentences and famous inmates such as Patty Columbo, who once served us lunch in the prison dining room. Before the death penalty in Illinois was eliminated, we visited men and women on death row.
Chris Hedges, not only an award-winning writer–but also an ordained minister, spoke at the Chicago Humanities Festival recently. In his hour-long conversation, with moderator Flynt Taylor, which is right here, he discussed his experiences teaching various subjects in the New Jersey prison system. He has written a book about it.
He also said the US has 25 percent of the prison inmates in the world, but only five percent of the world’s population. And that 76 percent of inmates return to prison within five years.
Something is wrong, very amiss.
The talk stirred up old memories about my trips to the prisons–and the Cook County Jail under a consent decree. The people I got to know, the prison teachers that I met, some who were excellent (as I’m sure Hedges is) and some whose teaching was totally outdated and ridiculous.
I was awash in remembering the feelings that I used to have after each visit.
I would always return home with a new appreciation for my life. And those feelings have never waned. They are simple and ever present. When I take a hot shower, any time I want to, and reach for a big, soft clean towel afterwards, I am grateful. And always aware of the prisoners who have no such “luxury.”
When I sleep in my quiet, peaceful bedroom, in a bed with clean sheets, a good mattress and plenty of nice warm blankets, I never take it for granted. I think of the inmates all over the State of Illinois who don’t have what I have.
Hedges made me think of my neighbor who had an interest in prison reform–and I arranged for her to get a background check so she could volunteer with me. When Ellen and I went downstate, we always stopped at Cracker Barrel and we had a big country breakfast and we bought trinkets for our homes and big comfy sweatshirts, too–because those things added to our everyday gratefulness for the simple comforts and the happy things in life, the things we knew that weren’t where we were headed.
We knew that an inordinate number of people we would meet that day would be mentally ill, or developmentally disabled. And possibly abused at some point. And the vast majority of them wouldn’t have the benefit of a good family support system or a good education.
Because Hedges is ordained, he reminded me of the time Frances Cardinal George came with us to the Cook County Jail. I was incredibly impressed and very much taken with the way he talked to the inmates. He was genuinely nice, not patronizing, and truly concerned about everyone’s wellbeing. He uncovered concerns, complaints–and mistreatment that they said they endured. He seemed to make a huge difference in their moods as they hovered around him. As they talked and he listened.
At some point during my long stint on the JHA board, I began taking my autistic daughter with me to Cook County Jail–and I discovered things she was capable of that I never would have imagined. She would enter the cells of the inmates, sit alongside them on a disheveled bed and ask all the right questions: Is your bed comfortable? Are you warm enough? How are you feeling? What do you need?
And they would tell her.
Once she saw a mouse in another wing of the jail, and asked an inmate in his cell if there were any in his wing.
Another time, she walked over to a mentally ill inmate in the woman’s division who was crying profusely. Molly put her arms around her and asked what was wrong. She got the woman’s tears all over her hands. A female sheriff came running over with an antibacterial for Molly’s hands. Which broke up the beautiful scene. But at the same time I was grateful.
Once, Molly interestingly said one of the divisions of the jail looked to her like a complex of town homes near our house. And in fact, both the division and the town homes were built about the same time in the 1970s.
I used to tell people a fun fact: that Molly was in more divisions of the jail than anyone ever arrested in Cook County, including the biggest recidivists one could imagine. Because so many went back to the same divisions over and over. But Molly was in them all, including the jail’s hospital division, where ironically when we were there, two autistic young men were being incarcerated, which totally freaked me out.
I also used to take my Columbia College courts and law students to the jail every semester, to expose them to a realm I hoped they’d remember forever. Speaking of which, several never remembered to leave their cell phones back in the classroom, and had to hide them in the bushes outside so we could all go in. (No cell phones allowed in the jail, at least back then….)
In his talk, Hedges made some riveting points about the prison system in this country. That very few people actually belong in prison; that a look into a prison is a look into old-fashioned slavery, the plantation politics of our time. And that we got here mostly by the Democrat policies of recent administrations that threw way too many souls behind bars and lost the key.
Policies that let folks get rich on the privatization of providing substandard human services to as many inmates as possible, such as food and medical care, and just about everything.
Three times I was asked by JHA to speak or testify about such things: to the Cook County Board; to a renowned national criminal law group at Northwestern University; and on a panel, ironically for the Chicago Humanities Festival, where there was a heated discussion about Restorative Justice.
But nothing ever changed.
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