Monday, April 24, 2006

The Storybook Project

When inmates make collect calls (the only calls they can make) from Cook County Jail, it costs their families 3 to 4 times the usual rate to accept the charges. It's a small thing I suppose, but like a lot of things in our correctional system, it seems like they're going out of their way to be rapacious and unfair and counter-productive. Talk about kicking someone when they're down. Does price gouging poor people and isolating inmates from their families and communities serve the common good in the long run? Does it make our streets safer or reduce recidivism? I very much doubt it. But, of course, it's a safe bet for the phone companies (or the jail, or whoever's idea it was) that sticking it to prisoners won't win them any enemies, even while it fattens their profit margins. The invisible hand is more like an invisible fist when you've got a monopoly and a captive market (so to speak).

This last Saturday, Laura Jean and I went with 3 other folks from our church to the Cook County Jail for our first session volunteering with Aunt Mary's Storybook Project. We had our orientation about two months ago, but hadn't been allowed inside the jail since, due to security lockdowns. These may have had something to do with, oh I don't know... the jailbreak that occurred just a few days after our first visit, and subsequent allegations that prison officers may have had a hand in the escape. So yeah, they've been having some security "issues", but they finally decided to let us in this past weekend.

Just getting into the jail is quite a task. Your name has to be on the right piece of paper, you get patted down (twice), go through a metal detector and an ion scanner. Not all of the officers seem tense and unhelpful, but after a while you feel like some of them are looking for any excuse to toss you out. So, you learn to be very polite and helpful at all times. The system is highly bureaucratic, yet oddly incompetent -- we had to ask them to carefully search the cart of books we brought in, not wanting to get busted for any accidental contraband and lose our right to do our program. Go figure.

Anyway, we finally got everything set up in one of the gyms, and they sent us an initial group of 15-20 mothers from the women's ward and we explained the program to them. We told them that we were there to give them a chance to connect with their kids. We had boxes and boxes of children's books for all ages (from 'Pat the Bunny' through 'Harry Potter') and tape-recorders so that they could read the book aloud to their kids (or sing them a song, or send them a message). We would then mail the book and the tape to the children. The kicker is, when we explained the program to them, there was an audible response, and at least three women started crying right off the bat. This, of course, made it tough for the rest of us to keep a dry eye. We got started by helping them pick out the right books for each of their kids, and handed them a tape-recorder.

The few hours I've spent in CCJ give me the impression that it is a pretty rough place -- hugely overcrowded and oppressive. A few years back there was a big scandal about the officers beating the crap out of the inmates (read the full Chicago Tribune coverage here). In CCJ, almost everyone is awaiting trial. Laura Jean tells me that the prisons downstate are calmer since everyone knows how many years they're looking at. Although some have been awaiting trial for a year or two, everyone in the jail is on edge and unsure what will happen to them. I should say that probably most of the women in CCJ are there for drug-related crimes (see also here), either possession or property-crimes related to a drug problem. The War on Drugs marches on.

Anyway, there are some times when you're doing a service project and you wonder whether it will have any impact at all: this was not one of those times. The women were all completely down with the project and they spent every last minute they could reading into the recorders and writing letters to their kids. I got a very strong impression that the books and tapes were filling a painful gap for them. A few women cried through the entire book; others were excited and everyone seemed grateful in the end. Communication out of the jail is very difficult; in addition to the collect calls, they have to buy paper, envelopes and stamps through the commissary just to write a letter. It may not be a systematic fix for a broken system, but if it helps keep even a few families from shattering completely it's a success.

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