I started visiting Cook County Jail in 1985 and have been going ever since. For a while I was stationed in South Chicago and couldn’t go regularly, but often enough parishioners would end up in the jail and I’d see them. When I started, the jail was pretty small… it started on 26th and California and went down to about 28th Street, on the West it was bounded by Sacramento. Division One, the place I would go, was the oldest part of the jail. It’s what you think of when you think “jail,” with the bars and all. The jail has grown a lot since I started going. There are new divisions all over the place, and the modern jails have a different look to them… they have solid walls, and feel much more claustrophobic, for my money. Anyway, I went to the jail today.
I hadn’t been going lately because of the Covids, but now I’m back visiting. These days, I’m assigned to Division 8, RTU. I’m not sure what the RTU stands for, but it’s the part of the jail where they send the mentally ill people waiting for trial. So, I get into the ground floor of the building and I tell the guard at the desk I’m there to visit. The desk is behind pretty thick bulletproof glass, and there’s a little window I talk to her through. She tells me to sit down and that someone will be down in a minute. I sit down and remember that a minute in the jail doesn’t last 60 seconds. I’m studying the room. There’s a “Leeds” medallion on the wall, that means it’s energy efficient. The building looks like it was designed by the same kind of people who came up with Dachau. You can’t see outside at all, and there are very short sight lines. Maybe it’s on purpose. Who could guess?
Anyway, after around 15 minutes an officer comes to get me. We get in the elevator and now I’m on the 2nd floor. There are thick metal doors that are mechanical and operated from somewhere else. For every door you have to push like a doorbell thing and wait for the door to open. There are signs on the doors warning people not to get their arms or legs caught in the doors because they don’t stop. She has me sign in and sit down in her office and I wait. She calls on the radio, and another officer comes to take me onto the tiers. The two of them discuss which tier I should go to. The first officer tells me she doesn’t want to send me to the 5th floor because the guys are all sick. The two officers discuss where they might take me and decide I should go to the 4th floor. Officer Lopez (not her real name) rides in the elevator with me and we go up to the 4th floor. More heavy metal doors and finally we’re in the hallway outside the tiers.
The tiers are large rooms like dorms with many concrete beds in them, behind thick metal walls with bulletproof glass from about 4 feet up to the ceiling. There’s a metal door with a guard desk behind it, and an officer at the desk. Officer Lopez knocks on the glass at the first tier. “Have they been medicated yet?” “No.” We move on to the next tier. “Have they been medicated yet?” “They’re almost finished.” Officer Lopez decides we’ll move on. We end up at tier 4B. There are some stainless steel tables screwed to the floor near the hallway. I explain that I usually just sit at one of the tables and the guys come up and talk to me. I take off my jacket because it’s always warm in the jail because all the guys have for clothes is their beige jumpsuits. I am about to put it on the stool that’s bolted to the floor. Officer Lopez offers to take my jacket. It’s put on the chair behind the desk near the door. The officer on the tier tells the guys, “Anybody want to talk to the padre?” and someone approaches right away.
He sits down, and I ask him, “Do you want to go to confession?” “Yes,” he answers. “How long has it been?” “Years father, years.” We start. One by one, guys come for confession. If I ask someone how long it’s been and they answer, “never,” then I’ll ask them if they just want to talk and have a prayer. A couple of guys were like that today.
Another guy came and sat down. I’d seen him out walking around, and you could feel the tension radiating off him. He was tall and muscular… covered with tattoos. Maybe 25 or so. I thought for a minute that he might reach across the table and smack me one. “Do you want to go to confession?” “Yes father.” “Have you ever been baptized?” “No father.” “Oh,” I answered him, “you have to be baptized to go to confession, because that’s the way it is.” I looked in his eyes and saw a child. This big, dangerous looking dude looked like a little kid to me. “I wanted to get baptized with my girlfriend, but then I ended up here.” “Oh,” I answered him… I felt this wave of tenderness toward him. I started to explain what baptism was. “It’s when you have all your sins washed away. It’s when you become a Christian, that you belong to Jesus and become part of the Body of Christ,” and so on. I explained a little bit more and asked him, “Do you want to become a Christian?” “Yes, father, I do.” Oh my, I thought… what to do. I told him, “I don’t have any water.” “I have some,” he answered and he went to get a cup of water. “Do you have a towel?” “Yes,” he said and I asked him to go get it. We put the towel in front of him, and I poured the water over his head, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
It was amazing to see… for a second I thought he was going to float away. There was a moment of quiet and he asked me, “Can I tell you my sins?” I answered that he didn’t have to, but if he wanted to he could. He told me his sins.
He walked away and seemed to be floating.
On the way to the elevator officer Lopez said to me, “I don’t know what you did, but whatever you did, you really helped that guy. You could see it.” “You saw it too?” “I did. It was really something. I guess that’s why people go to church,” she said. “Yes, it is,” I answered her, “People find strength and healing from God’s grace when they go to church.” I walked back out through all the doors and gates and bars and went back to my car almost floating myself.
Never in a million years could I imagine I’d be in a position to baptize someone in jail. I’ve baptized people in hospitals, and in emergency rooms, but never in jail! I went back to the parish and we recorded the baptism in our books. When Louie (not his real name) gets out, we’ll finish the rest of the baptism and record names for godparents and all that.
For me and Luis, it was a good day in the jail!