Several African-American clergy from the West Side, concerned about their shared inability to provide pastoral care for inmates of the Cook County Jail, met with prison officials to discuss an agreement which would set guidelines allowing them easier access to inmates for ministry, as well as strengthen the relationship between black church and the Sheriff's office.
The problem was initially addressed at the recently formed Westside Leadership Roundtable, which was formed by reverends Dwight Gunn, Marshall Hatch and Michael Eaddy earlier this year to inspire dialogue amongst clergymen from the West Side.
"I had noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to offer pastoral care and church services to those incarcerated at Cook County," said Rev. Hatch. "I would request permission weeks in advance and would receive an acceptance letter for my request, yet would still be turned away at the gate."
Rev. Hatch and his church, New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church (4301 W. Washington Blvd.) provide not only spiritual consolation to inmates but also care packages which include soap, deodorant, towels, etc.
"We would place the supplies in clear Ziploc bags, so there would be no concerns over the contents and would still be denied access," said Hatch. "They would not even allow us to leave the packages for the inmates."
When Rev. Hatch met with other area clergy, he discovered a disturbing trend of inaccessibility among black clergymen. This finding prompted many clergy to question whether the relationship between themselves and Cook County Jail remained trustworthy.
"Pastors and church groups all over the West Side were complying with every written and verbal guideline to gain access and to offer counsel and minister at Cook County and were usually turned away," said Hatch. "Consequently, we decided to have a protest rally in February."
The rally took place at 26th and California and was covered by several radio stations including WVON (1450-AM).
It had an immediate impact. The department office quickly responded by acknowledging the need for a written policy allowing certified clergy access to inmates. Sheriff Michael Sheahan agreed to draw up an agreement addressing the issue.
On Feb. 28, the Sheriff met with clergy to present the stipulations of the agreement.
"The office was very apologetic, but I think they were mostly concerned about the PR firestorm that could result from the protest," said Hatch. "The only excuse they gave us for the problem was that there was a man named 'Rizzo' who was recently arrested for impersonating a clergyman and they were trying to be extra cautious of the clergy, which I still feel is no justification."
The clergy met with prison officials again on March 3, to solidify the grounds of the agreement.
"This is major. There was no clear, agreed-upon policy and that made it difficult because no one could agree on what was needed to allow clergy to enter," said Hatch. "This way, everyone is on the same page."
The third stipulation of the agreement requires that clergy be represented in an advisory capacity with Sheriff and jail officials.
The March 3 press conference took place at Columbus Park Refectory (500 S. Central Ave.). Approximately 30 clergy attended, along with four jail administrators, to briefly discuss the agreement, which both sides appeared to be quite favorable about.
"They've agreed to hire two chaplains and present the policy by late March," said Rev. Hatch. "We are looking forward to re-establishing our relationship with prison officials, a relationship that has historically been very strong."
The accessibility of clergy and religious advocates is especially important in Cook County jails since arrestees in Cook County are on average detained for 189 days before they even reach trail, which is among the longest in the nation. This is true in particular of poor inmates who are less likely to afford to make bail.