Our church is beginning to participate in a program call Aunt Mary's Storybook Project, which tries to help mothers incarcerated in Cook County Jail to stay connected with their children and their communities. So this past Wednesday night, I went to jail. It was just an initial orientation required for all volunteers in the jail, but in the near future we hope to have a couple sessions a month.
Cook County Jail is an enormous complex (as can be seen here). It is one of the largest county jails in the country; someone said it houses about 10,000 people, mostly those awaiting sentencing. Security was, of course, crazy -- a pat-down, an ion-detector followed by a metal-detector (although as we were entering, this cop was trying to get his girlfriend through with a wink, and the other guards weren't having it), barbed-wire curls topping 12-foot fences. There was a lobby with several dozen family members were sitting around waiting for bail to be processed for their loved one. We walked briefly through the detention units and were afforded quick glances into the cell units: usually we saw 20-30 men sitting around at tables, talking, playing cards, looking bored.
For the Saturday sessions, any interested mothers can select a children's book from a cart and we provide a tape recorder. They record themselves reading to their kids, and then the kids get the tape and the book. We, the volunteers, pretty much hang out and chat and give any assistance that might be needed. All told, it seems like a well-thought-out project with a concrete goal (it's being organized by a group called Companions Journeying Together), and I'm excited to see how it goes in practice.