Sheriff and ministers reach agreement on clergy access

Sheahan promises a clear written policy on access procedures at Cook County Jail within 30 days.

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By DELORES MCCAIN

"Concerned Clergy" held a press conference at the Columbus Park Refectory last Thursday to announce an "Agreement for Pastoral Care" with Sheriff Michael Sheahan. Austin Weekly News had earlier reported how clergy stood on the courthouse steps in the rain on Valentine's Day, demanding access to inmates to provide them with pastoral care as well as moral rehabilitation for re-entry into communities.

On Feb. 28, an agreement was drawn up to enhance ministry services to the incarcerated and ensure ongoing dialogue and involvement of clergy with the Sheriff's office and jail officials. The agreement spells out the following promises:

? A written policy within 30 days outlining clergy access requirements and procedures guaranteeing both pastoral care access and religious services

? The appointment of at least two chaplains to assist in clergy access, scheduling of religious services, and pastoral care and counsel for inmates

? The representation of clergy in ongoing dialogue and an advisory capacity with Sheriff and jail officials.

Rev. Dwight Gunn of Pastor Heritage International Church gave a brief recap of the events surrounding the agreement between the clergy and Sheriff Sheahan.

"On Feb. 14, the Westside Leadership Roundtable/Concerned Clergy Chicago gathered at the steps of 26th & California to raise this issue publicly. In so doing, we challenged the Sheriff's office that there should be a response within a period of time to our concerns.

"We're grateful to report today that Sheriff Sheahan did respond to our call, because he felt that after finding out these things were going on, there needed to be some corrections. Today we report to you that there has been a partnership between the Cook County Sheriff's Office, along with Westside Leadership Roundtable/Concerned Clergy Chicago to lay out these particular things. What we found was lack of access, minister groups were going believing they had followed whatever rules and guidelines and getting to the gate and then being turned around, being denied the ability to get in to do the ministry they had come to do.

"With the overcrowdedness, with health issues, mental health issues and several different things that are going on within Cook County Jail, it is apparent to us that there is a need for continued partnership with the community, especially the religious community, to come in and try to help these men and women who are in some of the worst circumstances they've ever found themselves in. So what we've gotten, as related to our meeting this past Tuesday, was a commitment from Sheriff Sheahan's office that within a 30 day period of time there will be a standardized written policy, which was not in place up until this point. They had a particular system. That system was not working. So we challenged them that there should be a written policy that is fair and equitable so that those who desire to come in and minister would know clearly what the guidelines are.

"Also, we felt as a ministering group there was a need for better accountability within the Cook County Sheriff's Dept. as it relates to religious services and spiritual enhancement of those who are incarcerated. We found there is no paid chaplain with a population of over 10,000 incarcerated inmates. There was no accountable staff to handle spiritual moral needs of the inmate population. We challenged the Sheriff's Office on this. They have in turn agreed that they would seek two positions, both male and female clergy persons, to act as chaplain in the Cook County Jail. "We believe we've scored a major victory for the community and we believe that our pressing and prodding has paid off in a major way. We believe the inmate population will be better served from our community. We're grateful to Lorenzo Clemons, who serves as director of Community and Government Affairs."

Clemons said, "We have been very busy, and sometimes as you go along, it's good to get a wake-up call. You think you're moving in the right direction, [but] it's good to have your friends come and tell you there is a better direction. And so one of the conversations that we did have at that meeting was about how we can make it accessible for the clergy to continue doing the work that we need in the jail. So I'm just a little ol' dude from Birmingham, Ala., by way of the West Side. Like I expressed to the ministers at the meeting, I have family on both sides of the jail. I have some that are sitting there as officers and some who are sitting there as participants. It's important for us and for me to understand that we need that change. We do have 11,000 people on an average day in that jail. We ship out 600 people every Friday. So it's an awesome task?"100,000 people come through the court system; we're the largest single-site jail in the nation.

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