A cross-section of protestors held a press conference at Cook County Jail this past Monday‚Ä"reminiscent of the old civil rights days with Dr. King‚Ä"with clergy and supporters standing on the County Jail steps in the rain calling for Sheriff Michael Sheahan and his staff to offer pastoral care and church services to the incarcerated.
A coalition of ministers stood together representing several hundred congregations. Rev. Michael Eaddy read off the roster of these concerned organizations, then stated, "Concerned clergy across this entire county are standing to oppose Sheriff Michael Sheahan locking out clergy to reach our people. It is our moral responsibility. We are the part of the rehabilitation, we are part of the re-building, we are of part of the re-directing of the mind and the re-building of the social fiber, and we will not allow ourselves to be locked out to carry out our mandate that was given to us by Jesus Christ, who told us to go into the prisons, and we will go into the prisons, and we will return again and again and again until we get access."
Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church and a leader in the Austin community was one of the key contacts for this coalition. "We will not be ignored," he said. "Now we have been locked out, which is strange when we consider that most people are trying to get out of the jail. We thank God for some preachers who are trying to get in the jail‚Ä"to help our brothers, sisters and our sons and our daughters.
"All of us, the clergy, have been meeting together across the length and breadth of this city, and we found out that we have a common experience with the Cook County Sheriff's office. We've had a common experience of being turned away at the gate, as we have sought to minister and have religious services. And we just wondered, since we all are black, whether or not Cardinal George is having the same problem" (to which the crowd yelled, "I doubt it.")
"And so we have the same right and responsibility to come here and minister to these young people, our sons and our daughters, those that have come out of our community, out of our families, out of our churches, even if some of them have made a mistake. We know that 'he that is without sin should cast the first stone' and ain't no stones moved yet.
"We need to be determined that this will not be the last time, and we will not be ignored. This is the kind of work we do. We want to let it be known that we represent not just those who are here, but we represent congregations of hundreds and thousands who support our right to access. The question needs to be asked, 'Why does the sheriff and this jail administration want to keep out the reverend clergy?' There must be something they're hiding behind these gates.
"Those of you who have read the papers in recent days know that there are allegations of prisoner abuse, and we understand that this is not a prison; this is a jail. Everybody who is incarcerated here‚Ä"all of the folks have not necessarily been convicted of any crime, which means anybody can be arrested, sometimes falsely, sometimes because the police planted something on their person, sometimes because you had a traffic ticket and so you can be in this jail detained, never convicted of a crime and have your rights taken away and stay here waiting on a trial, one, two and three years. This is not right, and so we demand that justice be brought to the jailhouse, and we're going to demand again a meeting with the Sheriff in seven days.
"We had an opportunity to talk with Cong. Danny K. Davis, and he's going to facilitate a meeting between a representation of the clergy and the Sheriff. And we're not going to simply go in and preach and minister, but we're going to demand that the conditions in which these people live, our sons and our daughters, are humane and just. We will be reporting back to the community what will be the outcome of our meeting. And if necessary, we will come back again and again with more people, until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The clergy group said that because they have tried but failed to impress upon the Sheriff the seriousness of the matter, they came to the jail house door and publicly placed their statement of demands:
1) An immediate meeting within seven days with Sheriff Sheahan for frank, open discussion concerning this crises;
2) Full cooperation with the investigation of allegations of abuse of detainees and inmates at jail facilities;
3) Clear, printed, objective, enforced guidelines for access to offer pastoral care and religious services;
4) Special consideration for religious holiday services with extended service times;
5) Improved sound and musical equipment to accommodate the difficulties of holding religious services in the athletic gymnasium;
6) A detailed report of arrestee health examination procedures, HIV-AIDS testing, and health protections for incoming arrestees;
7) A detailed report on the safety and health effects of the severe overcrowding at the Cook County Jail;
8) Structures for ongoing dialogue between clergy and Sheriff to further engage our mutual mission of care and rehabilitation of the incarcerated.