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.