During a wintery storm in Chicago and much of the eastern U.S., I experienced many flight cancellations, delays and missed flights.
Amid that storm, I had the opportunity to visit the Cook County Jail with Jesse Jackson and many community leaders from the Chicago area.
With 12,700 inmates, the Cook County Jail is the largest single site jail in the country, larger than Riker’s Island (12,300 inmates) in New York City.
A jail is the responsibility of a county, as opposed to a prison, which is the responsibility of a state or the federal government.
The visit took about 3 1/2 hours. We first met with the sheriff and workers in the jail. They gave a 30-minute presentation about the conditions, statistics and events that occur within the jail.
However, this could not prepare me for what I was about to experience.
The cells and hallways inside the jail were gloomy, stuffy, overwhelming and heartbreaking.
Many of the inmates were poor and people of color who are pretrial detainees and should not be locked up in jail. Many cannot afford the bond to get them released and back home.
As we entered the women’s area of the jail, there were many young girls excited to see Jesse Jackson; many were crying and weeping as they began to share their painful stories of how they arrived there.
There was desperation in their eyes as they wanted to leave their cells and return to their lives outside these walls.
They looked hopeless and helpless in a dark, gloomy, dirty and crowded area with poor air circulation.
There were only tables and chairs in the common room and a few decks of cards that the women were using to pass the time.
As we stood around the room, the women started to reach out to us as they shared their painful stories of how they came to be in the jail and that they have no money to be released on bail.
It broke my heart to see the young women who were locked up in such inhumane situations.
They should be home with their children and family. They should be released and electronically monitored as they await trial.
Their situation, compared to those who have lots of money, is unjust, and the system needs to change.
This is a big concern for many community leaders who are seeking justice for such inmates.
Even the workers, counselors and medical professionals inside Cook County Jail recognize that many should not be locked up at all.
The cost of keeping these pretrial detainees is more than having them electronically monitored at home.
Sheriff Tom Dart said that out of the population of about 10,000 inmates in jail, only half should really be in there.
The remainder should be out awaiting trial or monitored under house arrest as punishment.
As I reflect upon this visit to Cook County Jail, I am even more heavy-hearted and burdened with the story of Kenneth Bae in a North Korean prison.
He was arrested on Nov. 3, 2012, while he was leading a tourist group, which he had already done more than 15 times.
Since his arrest, he has now been sentenced to 15 years in a hard labor camp for “crimes against the North Korean government.”
Due to his poor health, he has now been moved to a North Korean state hospital.
His family is asking for his release from prison on humanitarian grounds. He should be able to return home to his family, who is anxiously waiting for his safe release and return home.
As I reflect on my jail visit in Cook County and upon Kenneth Bae’s situation, it provokes me to take action.
There are some people in jails and prisons who are wrongly convicted and sentenced. We need to work together to build a better justice system that is blind to social class, social status and ethnicity.
Jesus came to set the captives free. We need to participate in freeing those who are unnecessarily in jail and seek justice and liberty.
Editor’s note: “Through the Door,” EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and prisons, is available at ThroughTheDoor.info.