Cook County Jail is the largest single site jail in the United States. Covering multiple city blocks in Little Village, it is an imposing complex in which over 7,500 people are detained while awaiting court appearances. Many detainees are poor or mentally ill, and some are detained for months at Cook County for low-level misdemeanors because they cannot afford to post bail. While these basic facts might not be surprising, especially as “mass incarceration” has been the subject of many recent articles and infographics, the actual experience of incarceration is difficult for most of us to imagine. Many of the detainees at Cook County Jail are faced with the intense psychological trauma of being confined and stripped of the rights and freedoms we take for granted. While Sheriff Tom Dart and other jail administrators acknowledge that what many of the detainees need is “help, not incarceration,” the jail’s bureaucracy and lack of funding make enrichment programs difficult to implement. Armed with this knowledge, the Gate piloted a creative writing workshop at Cook County Jail during winter quarter 2017. After a training and credentialing process, twenty-two undergraduate and graduate students have volunteered in the program to date.
In accordance with requirements from the University of Chicago Office of Risk Management, the volunteers could only work with detainees of the same biological sex, since the jail divisions are gender-segregated. While the workshop operated similarly across volunteer groups in different divisions, I will share my personal experience working with female detainees at the jail.
On our first trip to the jail, I worked with four women with varying literacy levels and interest in the writing workshop. After brainstorming ideas of how to answer the prompt, each woman wrote a letter to her ten-year-old self. Some preferred to write in silence, covering their paper with their hands, while other women finished quickly, edited their writing or started up another conversation. After everyone finished writing, some of the detainees read their letters out loud to the group. When each woman finished reading her letter, we all thanked her for sharing. If someone wrote about something upsetting or difficult to talk about, the other women in the workshop gave her encouraging words. I was amazed by how supportive an atmosphere we could create within the dim and sterile walls of the jail, and I was also surprised by how eager the women were to participate. At the end of the workshop, the women thanked us and some asked if they could keep their letters. I left that day feeling excited about the continuation of the project.
My second workshop at Cook County Jail was an even more positive experience. This time I had the opportunity to work with four women whose ages ranged from their 20s to their 50s. After I introduced the prompt, each detainee chose which age or person she wanted to write a letter to. If they finished quickly, I asked them for more details of what they wrote about—where they lived, what school was like, or who their friends were. While some women wrote to their teenage selves, others wrote to their children or to their future selves to read after leaving the jail. While some women chose not to share their letters out loud, we were all moved by the letters that some of the women did decide to share. In discussing their letters, the women connected their past experiences to their current life in jail. One woman described waking up every morning to cry, while another described the injustice she felt when she was shackled on her way to court. Some women spoke about how they felt forgotten and neglected by the state as they waited in jail longer than they believed it was necessary to appear in court. As the women described the daily reality of life in the jail, I was horrified and overwhelmed by the consequences of our broken criminal justice system. At the end of the workshop, the women asked us how soon we would be back.
During my third and latest visit to the jail, I worked with a larger group of fifteen women. We sat in a circle and brainstormed ideas about what to write and then each woman wrote a letter and shared what she wrote out loud. Some of the women wrote poetry, while others wrote raps and song lyrics. When we went around the room to share, I was again struck by how supportive the women were of each other. Many of the letters the women wrote prompted discussions about a common issue or experience, leading one detainee to jokingly remind the others that this was a “writing workshop,” and not a “group therapy session.” I could see, however, that, in many ways, writing could be therapeutic. In this workshop, writing was both a tool for personal reflection and an opportunity to share and listen to others.
As the jail visits for this school year come to an end, we as writing workshop volunteers are also reflecting on this experience. Next year, we hope to start the program at the beginning of the year, with more frequent and consistent visits to the jail by a core group of committed volunteers. We are making plans to increase our presence and impact throughout the jail, across security levels and gendered divisions. There is also significant room to expand the content and scope of the workshops themselves. With continued support from the Gate, we are trying to get permission to publish some of detainees’ writing alongside reflections by volunteers. Although our criminal justice system is in many ways a broken one, my experience working with detainees in Cook County Jail has shown me that no impact is too small. While I believe that this workshop has been beneficial to detainees so far, I am also deeply grateful for the opportunity to participate as a volunteer. My outlook and understanding of real-world issues like incarceration has been expanded beyond what I can learn from books and in classrooms. Looking forward, I am optimistic and excited for the future of this writing workshop and for more student volunteering opportunities at Cook County Jail.
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