“You don’t have to pray, believe in the same God or even a God to come to a prayer vigil,” Pastor Thomas R. Gaulke told a small group assembled in a meeting room at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity in Bridgeport.
Gaulke and the group were finalizing an agenda for a prayer vigil that some 60 people attended last night for the families and friends of loved ones who have been incarcerated. The vigil, which took place in an empty lot on 31st street near the 9th District Chicago police station and the Bridgeport Homes housing project, came together as part of a collaboration between faith leaders like Gaulke and community organizing groups, including Bridgeport Alliance, IIRON and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation.
Gaulke, who has been Pastor of First Lutheran for five years, said he initially started work on planning the vigil after several community members quietly approached him and asked for prayers for their loved ones who were incarcerated.
“They don’t have to be members of the church or anything, they’re just folks in the community who come in for prayer or counseling just because we’re here and available.” First Lutheran operates a clothing room called “God’s Closet,” which provides clothing to anyone in the area who might need it, along with open office hours.
“One woman came in one day and asked us if we could do an entire vigil just for her loved one. That was a seed for it,” said Gaulke. “We started thinking about all of the other folks who have loved ones detained for immigration, deportation rates and others in prison.”
The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. According to research from the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy group, there are approximately 2.4 million people in state, federal, juvenile and other jails and detention centers. Cook County Jail, located just a few miles west of the Bridgeport neighborhood, is the largest jail in the United States, with a population of nearly 13,000. At both the national and local levels, thousands of inmates in jails have yet to be convicted of a crime and are simply awaiting trial, and many of those people do not have the funds to post bail.
The prison population in the United States has more than quadrupled since 1980. The largest contributing factor in that increase has been the war on drugs. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly 50 percent of the federal prison population are inside on drug offenses. Oftentimes, inmates who sign up for rehabilitation or education programs will wait months to begin them. Experience with that part of the prison system brought Matthew Shay to the vigil.
“Alcoholism and drug addiction shouldn’t be treated like a crime,” said Shay. “It should be treated as the health issue and the disease that it is.”
Shay, a 23 year-old originally from the western suburbs in Illinois who described himself as a leader in IIRON and is the Restorative Justice Chairperson at the First United Methodist Church of the Chicago Temple, said he was convicted of three misdemeanors and a felony charge for growing marijuana.
“I had an alcohol problem and a drug problem. I was broke and couldn’t afford my own habit,” said Shay.
He said that during his time in prison he wasn’t given the opportunity to enter into a treatment or education program.
“Most people think that if you lock people away for a drug problem or an alcohol problem that they’ll come out of prison with an understanding that it’s a problem and they need to fix it, but in prison there’s really no education on the disease itself and in few there’s 12-step programs. I wasn’t able to fully understand what I was dealing with until I was given treatment.”
The third largest group of inmates housed in prison are there on immigration violations. When coupled with those serving time for drug-related offenses, 60 percent of the United States prison population are inside on non-violent offenses. Poverty and mass incarceration go hand in hand, and a criminal record, even for non-violent offenses, can prevent both job and educational opportunities. The stigma and shame attached to serving time is another reason why organizers held the vigil.
“It’s definitely a tool of oppression, that shame is taught,” said Ruby Pinto, chair of the Bridgeport Alliance. “Whenever we see criminals portrayed in the media, they’re always very bad people committing crimes out of greed and they’re very violent. The reality is that we have a society that creates desperation.”
Pinto also pointed to the rapid growth of the for-profit, private prison industry, as another reason for high incarceration rates. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of privately operated prisons skyrocketed. These facilities produce everything from bullet-proof vests to airplane parts and office furniture and bring in over $3 billion a year.
“As long as incarceration is an industry, as long as there’s cheap labor provided by prisoners, as long as there’s money to be made in detention centers, we’re going to keep seeing this shame being taught,” said Pinto. “If the populous really knew how ineffective this system is there would be a huge outcry. I think that shame persists primarily because it’s convenient for people who are making money off of the current system.”
Josh Evans, a seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology in Hyde Park, said that he attended the vigil because it was important to put his faith to practice.
“Someone expressed to me that church happens in these empty lots and that’s a beautiful thing because we’re coming together where the poor and oppressed people are,” Evans said. “People who are incarcerated and have to live with a criminal record trying to rebuild their lives; people who are in this country from other countries and have to live with the fear of being forced to leave and being torn away from their families; wherever suffering is, that’s where God is and that’s where we’re called to be.”
Erasing the stigma of serving time and raising awareness for the community is just the first step, according to the group. Pinto said groups like SOUL and IIRON are working to mobilize groups of people affected by the prison system.
“We have an ending mass incarceration campaign which is focused on pushing politicians to make the right decisions about these issues,” said Pinto. “Currently, we’re working on reforming the bail bonds system in Cook County, which is at the moment incredibly flawed and leads to poor people of color spending unnecessary amounts of time in jail while awaiting trial.”
Gaulke said an increasing number of people from different faith denominations as well as others coming together will help to create conversations that will hopefully lead to changes.
“People say, well, what’s this have to do with faith? It has everything to do with it. People are starting to wake up to the fact that justice issues are faith issues. It’s very exciting to me to see people waking up to that and acting collectively with people who both are and aren’t of faith,” said Gaulke.