We all know what prisons are, but do we really know what goes on inside these facilities? Are they actually successful in reducing crime and making Chicago a safer city? And most importantly, who is responsible for monitoring that?
John Howard Association [JHA] is an independent nonprofit organization, whose main mission is to push Illinois to have the most humane and effective criminal justice and prison system possible. According to JHA’s executive director, Jennifer Vollen-Katz, this can be achieved by “having a smaller system that does not rely so heavily on incarceration, providing meaningful rehabilitation programs for those people who are in prison and providing them with opportunities upon release so they can be successful and not return to prison.”
JHA’s work has three different levels. First, they run a prison monitoring program. For the past 116 years (Vollen-Katz), JHA has been going to Illinois prisons to talk to inmates and staff. They monitor conditions of confinement, programming and treatment. The program provides the opportunity for people to talk to someone outside of the system.
They also run a prison response unit, where inmates can write JHA with any questions or concerns. Letters usually contain requests of case laws and statutes, but many also include questions regarding current events, sports, movies and music lyrics. JHA staff and volunteers work relentlessly to reply to hundreds of letters every week. Even if they don’t have the answer the inmates are looking for, they still make sure to write the inmates back apologizing and acknowledging their feelings. Phil Whittington, Corrections Police Analyst, explained, “We write back. I am glad we are able to provide that service. Everybody as a human being should have the dignity of being responded, and that [is] something we take seriously.” JHA staff is also available for loved ones and families who are concerned about someone who is incarcerated; these people can reach out to JHA via phone or email.
The third level of the nonprofit’s work is a combination of the first two: fighting through advocacy. There are several different ways to approach advocacy, according to JHA. Sometimes it is by reaching out to a legislator to draft or push for a piece of legislation, which can be related to policies affecting the prisons themselves or policies to provide the right tools for those who are released. It can also be through creating written reports or presenting oral testimonies. They testify at subject matter hearings and talk to any sort of advocacy groups such as nonprofits, schools, religious affiliated groups and anyone who is interested in talking about these issues.
Even though JHA is a statewide organization, they are based in Chicago, and that is not coincidental – 50% of inmates in Illinois correctional facilities come from Cook County jails.
Call to action
JHA is always recruiting volunteers for different tasks, but the fastest way to help their cause right now is by becoming familiar with their work. Part of their mission is educating the public. Many people are not aware of the issues regarding our current prison system, and JHA writes reports every year about Illinois correctional facilities. These are all available on their website.
Donation is another way to help their organization. As an independent nonprofit they do not take any government money and making sure that they have all the necessary resources to do their work is very challenging.
If you have time to help with office tasks such as replying to letters, preparing surveys, and eventually monitoring prisons, you can always apply for it on their website.
No matter how much time you can commit to volunteer, JHA can always use your help.
Every time we post an article here at Chicago Rises, we make sure to include a call to action – we want readers to engage with the community and help in any way they can. And we want to show that anyone can volunteer and improve this beautiful city.
So, we decided to talk to one outstanding Chicago citizen each month, and ask them how they got to this point. Hopefully, their stories will inspire others to follow their steps and give back to the community.
Our Riser of December is Justin Cabrera, a senior at Loyola University Chicago. Justin dedicates at least one day of every week to volunteer with The Labre Ministry, a student-led homeless outreach. They prepare food for the homeless and go to multiple Chicago neighborhoods to distribute it. But most importantly, they make sure they connect with whomever they are helping – they sit with the people, chat with them, hang out for a bit and give them food. Justin’s outstanding engagement through the past four years led to a leadership position – but how did he first get involved with Labre? Fortunately, I got the chance to interview him and find more about his experience in Chicago.
How did you decide to join Labre? “My freshman year I actually got into a little bit of trouble, and the school asked me what I wanted to do throughout my years here in Loyola. I said I wanted to get involved in community service, so I started to go to Labre and it was great. I did this type of service back home, and I wanted to keep doing it in Loyola, it just so happens that it kind of fell into my hands unexpectedly, like a blessing in disguise. And if you ask other Labre leaders, many of them will tell similar stories – that it started as mandatory community service, but they kept doing it.”
Why do you keep going? “When I started I went every week almost, and even after I fulfilled my hours I thought wait, I really like this, so I kept going. Going into my sophomore year they offered me a leadership role. It was cool because now I could actually lead other students and have a final saying in some decisions in the organization.”
Do you think celebrating what you have is important? “Before we go out, I always tell my group to think about what we have and what these people don’t have, because it provides them with more perspective. Remembering how lucky we are, and being aware of it is something we should celebrate.”
What is your favorite quote? “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.”
If you could teach any subject, what would you teach? “Sports. I would want to coach, and be a tutor on the side. There is a lot we learn on the field that we can apply to real life.”
If you could pass a message to a large group of people, what would it be? “Be present in the moment and don’t take things for granted. We have busy lives and sometimes we forget to stop and just worry about what is going on right now, rather than what we did in the past or what we are going to do in the future. So, I always try to focus on the present. When we are out with Labre in a circle, talking to one of the people on the streets, we try to be in that moment and listen to what they have to say. We might think that we are doing them a favor and changing their lives, but in fact they are changing ours.”
Call to action
Got inspired? If you are a student at Loyola University Chicago you can always join Labre during one of their weekly outings through the organization’s website.
If you do not attend Loyola, but still want to help feed the homeless, there are many other volunteering opportunities across the city. For instance, Chicago Rises has attended the monthly HashtagLunchbag events, where you can put together lunch bags in a super fun environment! To learn more or to RSVP to an upcoming event you can access their website or their Facebook page. Also, check our events tab to see if there are any upcoming events that you can join.
Winter is coming, and everyone can feel it. Learn how you can help Chicago warm up with the help of Button and Zipper!
Temperatures are dropping in Chicago, which means it’s time to turn on the heater, make a hot chocolate and snuggle under the blankets.
However, for the thousands of homeless people living in the Chicago area, that won’t be possible. Homelessness and poverty affect Chicago year-round, but they need special attention during this season.
Thankfully, some Chicagoans dedicate their days to making sure no one is cold this winter. One of them is Nancy, also known as Ira’s mom, the cofounder of Button and Zipper.
I interviewed her during the October event of HashtagLunchbag, where she collected winter coats. We decided to have a chat on the balcony – we were wearing no jackets and it was 32 degrees outside. It really put the whole issue into perspective.
Her son, Ira, lives in Denver, so Button and Zipper operates in both cities. When asked about how the organization came to be, Nancy said that Ira grew up in Chicago, watching her give back to the community, which influenced him to come up with the Button and Zipper idea.
One of their main goals is to “help kids make it”. For instance, one of their projects, Dress Up The Grad, aims to support at risk high school students for graduation. Still, right now they focused on helping everyone that needs winter coats. Ira’s mom mentioned that Button and Zipper is currently working on multiple new projects, and as it grows hopefully the word will keep spreading and we’ll keep hearing about their programs and their impact on the city.
Right now, Button and Zipper works as the middleman, partnering with different agencies to organize coat drives and then take donations to whoever needs it. If you want to donate winter coats, receive donated coats, or learn more about what they do, contact them directly.
Call to action
If you are ready to donate, check their drop-off locations and see which one is most convenient to you!
Thank you, Button and Zipper, for talking to us about your amazing organization, and we urge all our readers to take some time this month to separate winter coats that you don’t wear anymore. That old jacket thrown in the back of your closet can be someone’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Photo by Blake Lisk on Unsplash
You probably haven’t heard about this organization yet, but they are responsible for helping dozens of women around Chicago.
It is time for you to get to know them.
Chicago Women’s AIDS Project (CWAP) might have a very specific name, but their different programs target a surprisingly broad population.
Project SASS (Sister Advocating for Strong Sisters) helps HIV positive women by partnering with clinics and agencies across the city that provide treatment and education to HIV positive cisgender and transgender women. The goal is to strengthen these women’s coping skills, healthy relationships, and traditional STI/HIV transmission prevention skills.
Their other main project is called Returning Sisters, which is a prevention program. It helps women that are HIV negative, but at high risk of being exposed to the virus, which can be people that experienced or currently experience homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse issues, and mental health issues. CWAP offers free therapy, free recovery coaching, HIV and HEPC testing, and extensive rehabilitation support. They also often offer workshops about a variety of topics, which always have the intention of empowering their clients.
CWAP’s office offers a very informal and welcoming environment, where women can go hang out, ask for help, and feel safe. They are looking for volunteers, interns, and even new staff members. Want to hear more about these women’s stories? Get involved with CWAP’s work! Send an email to Velvian, the Returning Sisters’ Recovery Coach (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Recovery Coach, Velvian (middle), with two of her clients:
Clients often volunteer to help prepare the monthly events:
CWAP helped several women that did not have any social support to get their lives back on track:
In summary, they do an amazing job, and more people should know about them!
Have you ever wished you could build something in Chicago that would last for years?
Have you recently gotten out of a long term relationship and now need to focus on something new?
Have you ever realized how boring you are after someone asked you what you do for fun and all you could think of was laughing at memes so you decided you need a new hobby?
We have the solution to your problem!
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is giving out free oak saplings to residents of Cook County. They have partnered with the Chicago Region Trees Initiative to create the “Restore the Canopy” project. All you need to do is go to one of their pickup locations to get them. You can choose between individual pots or bulk bags – it all depends on your level of commitment.
Never planted a tree before? No need to worry! You will get all the instructions you need once you get there.
What is the MWRD?
The MWRD, also known as District, is responsible for “protecting the quality of the water supply source (Lake Michigan), improving the quality of water in watercourses in its service area, protecting businesses and homes from flood damages, and managing water as a vital resource for its service area”.
Besides “Restore the Canopy”, MWRD has several other projects – for instance they are responsible for “greenifying” schools in Chicago. So if you liked this initiative you should definitely go to their website and learn more about them.
Why is MWRD doing this?
The goal is simple – restore the canopy! Besides making Chicago even prettier, oak trees provide lots of benefits to the environment. For example, they can reduce flooding, reduce air pollution and even provide protection from the wind.
How can I get them?
There are several pickup locations in Cook County. You can find them in Chicago at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant (WRP) at 400 E. 130th St., Chicago. If you rely on public transportation, you can take Bus 34 to get there. To see other locations, access their website.
They distribute the samplings every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon.
It’s time to get out of your comfort zone and go pick up your oak sapling! Make sure to take pictures and post them on Instagram to brag about your new environmentally responsible persona. Don’t forget to tag us with #ChicagoRises and #MyMWDRTree
Still have questions? You can call their public affairs office at (312) 751-6633 or send an email to email@example.com.
Other important phone numbers:
- Calumet WRP: (773) 256-3538
- Small Stream Maintenance (report blockages/debris in streams): (312) 751-5106
- Hazardous Waste Dump Hotline Illegal dumping of waste into waterways or sewers or complaints of water pollution: (800) 332-3867