A Little Less Hope | Feature | Chicago Reader

A Little Less Hope 

Why did Cook County Jail mysteriously close downa successful Christian rehabilitation progam?

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In the summer of 1965, Drew (not his real name) was nine years old. His family lived in a sixth-floor walk-up in Harlem, and his best friend lived in the apartment below. Drew was on the street one warm day, tossing a ball up to his friend, who was grounded, when the boy stepped away, saying he'd come right back. But he never did, and not long after, Drew watched in horror as the windows blew out and flames engulfed both apartments. His sister and mother burned to death in the fire, thought to have been caused by an exploding gas can. "She was a strict working-class mother," he says. "She'd kept me in check in a way my father, who was disabled by a stroke, could not. After she died they sent me to some counseling, but I was out of control."

His first arrest, at age 11, was for armed robbery. By the time he was 21 he'd been convicted of eight armed robberies and given sentences of up to 56 months. After being released in 1977 he moved from New York to Texas and eventually to Illinois, using and selling drugs but also holding down jobs, driving trucks and buses, and doing collections for a bank.

In 2002 Drew got arrested again. He was charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, and illegal imprisonment and sent to Cook County Jail while awaiting trial. He admits to kidnapping his daughter, whose mother, his girlfriend at the time, had custody, but he denies imprisoning or assaulting the mother. He spent more than a year at County before being convicted of all charges and sentenced to four years in prison, which he served at Stateville and East Moline Correctional Center.

Now 52, Drew is an imposing figure--180 pounds, with a shaved head and muscular arms. But he says that when he arrived at County he was scared. He calls it a gladiator school. "County is all mobbed up with gangs--Latin Kings, Disciples, Crips, Bloods," he says. "A gangbanger could kill you for an initiation, especially if you're not affiliated so nobody cares if something happens to you. I didn't know anybody, didn't trust anybody. I sat in the dayroom by myself, dying of boredom. I was looking for something to do, and church was something to do, so I went. Then Chap--Chaplain Baird--got me a Bible, so I started reading that."

A corrections officer suggested he try to get into a Life Learning Program--a small, self-contained residential unit intended to hold 44 inmates that's run by evangelical chaplains and volunteers. County had four such units, including one in the maximum-security Division Nine run by Marcus Baird, chaplain for the entire division. They're the only residential rehabilitative programs for adults at County. Drew talked to Baird and signed the required contract, pledging to get up early every morning, help clean the unit, participate in all classes, complete all homework, and join all prayer sessions. He also agreed not to smoke, drink, swear, use drugs, or bring in pornography or other contraband.

Malcolm Young, executive director of the John Howard Association, a reform group appointed by the federal district court to monitor conditions at County, says that violence and disciplinary incidents are less common in the LLPs than in other units. "Inmates and correctional staff and leadership will all say the Christian dorms are quieter, safer," he says. "Inmates will say that's why they want to be there." I've visited County dozens of times in the past three years as a volunteer for the association, and I've seen a stark contrast between the LLPs and the other units. The men on other decks mostly swing between hostility and boredom, but the men in the LLPs are upbeat. The walls in the LLPs are decorated with their drawings of Jesus and Bible quotes they've copied, and I've watched them spontaneously start singing gospel songs and share bread from their lunches to make pizzas. And unlike other prisoners, they don't talk to visitors about their cases--they want to know if the visitors have been saved.

Drew was in the program for a year and credits it with turning his life around. He was paroled last June and now lives in a halfway house on the west side. Over the past few months he's had three jobs. He did bank collections again but quit because the hours were erratic and the pay was low, then worked in the office of an auto-parts distributor, who fired him because he couldn't pick up driving duties--his commercial license was suspended before his last conviction and to this day he can't afford to pay the fines to get it reinstated. Now he's working as a temp on an assembly line in the suburbs for $6 an hour, which makes it hard to cover his $400 rent at the halfway house.

Studies on recidivism rates around the country for someone with Drew's history say the likelihood that he'll be back in prison within three years is somewhere between 55 and 70 percent. A 1999 County Jail press release claims that people who've been through an LLP have a recidivism rate of only 16 percent, though no one could tell me the original source of that figure.

"I got to admit there's the temptation to go sell some stuff on the street corner and make a few hundred bucks fast," says Drew. "I've seen guys who were the most dedicated Christians in the program in jail back out on the street smoking crack. But I ask myself, whose way is going to win out--mine or God's? When I was in the program at County I learned God's way is the only way."

Now no one can participate in Baird's program: in August it was shut down as part of a security-driven reorganization of Division Nine that keeps most inmates locked in their cells 23 hours a day. The other three LLPs, which are in different divisions, are still open, though it's not clear for how long. Baird, who learned his program had been closed--and its participants dispersed into the general population--when he arrived for work that morning, doesn't know whether it will be allowed to reopen. Officials at the sheriff's office and the jail didn't respond to repeated inquiries about its fate. "I don't understand why they closed it," says one inmate who was in Baird's program. "We were a group trying to be progressive in a negative environment. We were producing good fruit."

Cook County Jail, which straddles California from 26th to 31st and extends west to Sacramento, is one of the nation's largest single-site jails or prisons. It was built to house just over 10,000 people, but it's frequently overcrowded, sometimes by more than 1,000 extra inmates. Technically it's a holding facility--inmates are supposed to stay there only while their cases are being adjudicated; if they're convicted they're transferred to state prisons. But many spend years at County while plea-bargaining, trials, and appeals drag on. According to the John Howard Association, "scores of inmates still remain incarcerated for periods of 3 to 5 years and longer, durations unheard of anywhere else in the United States."

The 11 divisions range from minimum to maximum security and are divided into separate living units, or decks, each with a separate entrance off a common corridor. In most divisions a glass-enclosed guard station overlooks two adjacent decks. There's supposed to be one corrections officer overseeing each deck from the guard station, but understaffing often means a single officer oversees both. Most decks consist of 20 to 25 two-person cells and a dayroom with a TV and half a dozen metal picnic tables and benches. Overcrowding means a third man sleeps on the floor of a cell, and severe overcrowding means even more men sleep on the dayroom floor.

Violence is a fact of life at County. One day as I entered the lobby of a medium-security division, officers rushed past me with an inmate whose face was carved into a spiral of bloody gashes. Later that day a guard in the same division was attacked by an inmate and hospitalized. Some decks are more dangerous than others. School decks might seem a good choice for an inmate seeking a safe haven, but a 20-year-old former gang member I'll call Jaime, who spent four years in the maximum-security Division 11 for shooting a member of a rival gang, says they're the most dangerous. County is obligated to offer high school classes to any inmate under 21 who wants to take them, and there's an alternative high school run by the Chicago Public Schools in a basement under the students' living units. Jaime, whom I tutored as he studied for his GED, says those living units are where the most physical aggression and violence occur.

He managed to land in one of the work decks. He says they offer the chance to leave the unit to go to work, which helps alleviate the boredom--inmates without classes or a job have virtually nothing to do but watch TV in the dayrooms or stay locked in their cells. He also says that the inmates selected for work are among the more sensible; because they can be sent back to general-population decks if they cause any trouble, violence is rare. There are also over-40 decks, medical decks for inmates who are injured or in poor health, and protective-custody decks, where prisoners are kept under continuous lockdown. "A medical deck has some gangbangers hiding out there," says Drew, "but it's safer than a general-population deck." So are the over-40 units. "Usually they vote on what to watch on TV instead of fight over it or have some mobster bogart it. But they still have fights."

And then there are what the inmates call the Christian decks--the LLPs, whose programs are funded by churches. Baird's entire salary is paid by the local chapter of the Virginia-based Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, which supports 434 chaplains in 359 institutions in 22 states and 19 other countries. Until his LLP was shut down, the consortium of local evangelical churches--some in the city, some in the suburbs--ran two Christian decks at County; the third is run by the nondenominational Chicagoland Prison Outreach, the fourth by the Salvation Army. According to Baird, an LLP costs at least $75,000 a year, which includes the chaplain's salary, Bibles, and teaching materials. He does a lot of fund-raising, and it isn't easy--money tends to be donated in small amounts at prayer breakfasts and golf outings.

Baird, now in his mid-40s, was 21 when he decided to give his life to God. He was in Kentucky, doing time for armed robbery, and had been in solitary confinement for four days. At the first opportunity afterward, he picked up a Gideon Bible and immersed himself in reading and prayer. He started a Christian library at the prison and took correspondence courses in Christian studies, and after he was released in 1986 he won a Charles Colson Scholarship (created by the former Nixon staffer to help ex-offenders get into the ministry) to Wheaton College. Upon graduation in 1994, he took the job at Cook County.

Baird recruited men for his LLP by visiting other decks in his division and distributing written applications to inmates who requested them. "I look for men who want to change their lives, who are honest about their gang affiliations and willing to renounce them publicly, and who are open to discussing what led them to break the law in the first place," he says. "I pray and seek the Lord's guidance in who should be in the program." Inmates had to be literate in English, but they didn't have to be Christian. Baird says Muslims and Jews participated, with the option to restrict their Bible study to the Old Testament. And applicants weren't disqualified by the crimes they'd committed. "The average person in there is very nice now," says Drew, "but when he was on the street he was not a nice person--a gangbanger, murderer, dope dealer, rapist, wife beater."

Baird tried to see that everyone entered the LLP voluntarily. But the corrections staff had the authority to assign inmates wherever they chose, so his unit sometimes had more than 60 men. Among them, he says, were "people who have no business being there. It's tolerable if someone comes in for pseudoprotective custody and they go along with the program. But when men feel forced to be there and resent having to observe our rules, it's a problem." Drew echoes that complaint: "When they're overcrowded they put troublemakers in who don't want to obey rules, like no TV during quiet times. They act out and get in fights."

The inmates' days were highly structured. Baird and volunteers from Wheaton, Trinity International, and Moody Bible Institute taught a course in basic money management--how to pay bills, stick to a budget, handle checking and savings accounts. Volunteers also taught classes on getting a job, on addiction, and on two books of the Bible, Ephesians and Philippians (chosen by the national organization). Baird guided the inmates through The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and a class called "Authentic Manhood." To graduate from the program, which usually took six months, inmates had to complete all the written course work and pass a written test on the material in each class. Baird says at least 85 or 90 percent of the men in his program graduated. "He's an inspiration, that even though you've been incarcerated you can succeed," says Drew. "It's easy to relate to Chap--after a while you forget he's white."

Baird also led the required Bible-study sessions, prayer services, and multiple group meetings, and he had the men discuss movies he thought were instructive. Drew remembers that Crash had a big impact on him. "The cop Matt Dillon plays did a bad thing violating that woman, but that didn't make him a bad person," he says. "Later he risks his life to save hers. I still think about her husband. Was he right to turn the other cheek? Or should he have done right by her? What would Christ do in that situation?"

At the center of the program were interventions by Baird and the peer leaders, or "elders." Baird would nominate a man to be an elder if he seemed self-disciplined and willing to call out others, and then the other men in the unit had to agree to accept him in that role. Interventions were based on Christian notions of sin, forgiveness, and redemption. Drew explains, "When I first moved there it was a breath of fresh air--safe and clean and all polite. But as I got familiar with the people I learned that not everybody who talks the talk walks the walk. Visitors sneak in dope, smokes, porn. People steal your commissary food, break the rules. That's really where the 'life learning' begins. You make a mistake, you can either lie about it and go down that path, covering one lie with another like you're used to, or you can own up to it and ask forgiveness. That takes courage."

He says it also takes courage to forgive others. "A guy jumps in front of you in line. It's easy to push him away. It's also easy to just give in. It's hard to confront him and say, 'I was here first, but that's OK. You go ahead.' Or someone shoves you on the basketball court--it's hard to back off and not get into a fight. It takes character to turn the other cheek.

"If someone sleeps in late or misses group or curses, an elder might tell Chap, who might bring it up in group. Maybe the guy will have to write out a chapter from the Bible that relates to what he did wrong."

Elders also made sure that inmates kept the promises they'd made in the group sessions, and they pushed the men to apologize to people they'd hurt in the past. "They got me to write a note to my ex-wife," says Drew. "I thought she didn't want to hear from me, but in truth she'd been worrying about me."

Prison-monitoring groups around the country are concerned about whether church-state separation is violated when programs like Baird's LLP are offered to inmates. Last June a federal court ended a similar program in Iowa, though unlike the County programs it had funding from the state. Gloria Andersen, head of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (a plaintiff in the case) says, "Are there equivalent secular rehab programs? Clearly a religious unit is better than a gang unit, but it's coercive if there's no alternative."

Drew, who stayed in contact with Baird and continued his religious studies after he left County, says secular programs would be a good thing at the jail. But, he adds, "They might not have been enough to keep me clean and sober. It never was in the past. In all these 12-step programs they talk about 'God as you understand Him.' That's not how I see it. I believe in a personal God that I have a relationship with and a jealous God who I have to put first. That's what keeps me on the path."

It's hard to gauge precisely the long-term impact of going through an LLP. Rashanda Carroll, head of County's program services department, which oversees the Christian decks, says, "Right now we have no metrics of effectiveness for the LLPs--but we are planning some for the future. It's hard to track recidivism when we have some inmates released to state prisons and others to the community."

But Baird uses the 16 percent statistic in his fund-raising literature, and it may well be a fair number. Good News tries to maintain contact with inmates for three years after they leave its LLPs, and last year its national office did a study tracking the 1,782 people who'd graduated between 1993 and the end of 2005. It found that only 117, or 6.6 percent, wound up back in the same prison system. Still, it couldn't determine whether any of the other former inmates had been imprisoned in states besides the ones where they went through the program, and it couldn't determine what had happened to inmates who hadn't officially graduated from the program.

Even people like Gloria Andersen are disturbed that Baird's program was cut. "You don't want there to be nothing," she says. "You want there to be more."

Baird, who's still chaplain for Division Nine, speaks cautiously about the situation. "I understand the dynamics of security until detainees go through the court process, but I think it's imperative that [County] incorporate quality programs that can be a process of rehabilitation," he says. "Even in maximum security some of these guys go home, and without rehab programs that challenge them to change, it's easy for them to fall back into the crime scene. Chapel services and Bible study by themselves are not successful--recidivism is too high. Programs need to deal with the person as a whole, help him cope with mental issues and other training as well as his spiritual life."

"I don't understand why they closed the program--it's a real eye-opener," says Drew. "At first I thought of deliverance as physical--getting out of prison. But it made me see deliverance in other areas is more important--deliverance from anger, lust, drugs, and alcohol. You learn you don't have to be on the outside to have a good time, and you don't have to be high to have a good time. When I started in the program I was always asking myself, 'What would Christ do?' But now the Christian way of living is more a habit."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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