The highlight of my recent intensive course in Restorative Justice at Loyola University in Chicago was a visit to Cook County Jail. Serving the greater Chicago area and currently averaging 6,100 incarcerated individuals, the facility is an outstanding example of what can occur when human dignity is protected and restoration is the norm.
Expecting a dark experience, I was on the contrary blown away by the numerous humane approaches implemented.
The administration, under the direction of an energetic sheriff, Thomas Dart, directs its efforts at returning people to their communities as productive citizens with saleable skills and strategies rather than watching the steady parade back to jail with its continued drain on taxpayers.
To begin, as individuals are processed into the jail, roughly 100,000 a year, they are given a complete medical work up.
Mental health is also assessed at the point of entry.
Those who need to detox are sent off to the hospital to move through this dangerous process under medical supervision rather than detoxing on the concrete floor of the “drunk tank” as is often the case, and medically assisted treatment is used as appropriate.
If someone is medically or mentally fragile, he or she is assigned an advocate from a department in the jail known as the “Justice Institute.”
Pregnant women are assigned a Doula volunteer, and advocates work with the courts in attempt for birth to take place in the home rather than jail.
The Justice Institute also works to establish programming for inmates. Classes are offered to develop marketable work skills, aquaponics and culinary arts, to name just a couple. Hundreds of clergy and assisting volunteers help with religious programming.
High school classes toward a G.E.D., college coursework, substance abuse classes, enrichment programs like yoga and chess, also are available.
The Cook County Jail runs centers for veteran services, mental health transitions and supportive release.
Offenders who are 18-24 years old can participate in a program called SAVE (Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort) five hours a day, five days a week, led by mental health professionals who provide group and individual cognitive behavior therapy.
Specialized programs also demonstrate the restorative philosophy. In 2012, for instance, detainees began participating with inmates from several other countries in video chess tournaments, and incarcerated parents are recently able to teach chess to their own children via video as a family support program. The forward-thinking, mental strategies that the game of chess affords is just another effort to prepare inmates for a return life on the outside.
When Sheriff Dart met with our small group, the question was asked how could he afford to offer all the programming we observed and maintain safety as well. His surprising response stated that he has not asked for extra money to improve the culture of the jail.
It was simply a matter of re-prioritizing budgeted money to achieve these ends.
He said it’s all about focus.
In similar words he indicated that if respect for human dignity is important, jail programming needs to reflect it.
About the author: As a Catholic Deacon, Tom Bousamra has served as a volunteer chaplain at the Grand County Jail for the past 33 years. He also chairs the local nonprofit called “Before During and After Incarceration” which seeks to help individuals and their families Before During and After Incarceration, BDAI.