The Gate has partnered with the Cook County Jail to launch a journalism initiative in which students will run writing workshops for detainees.
The partnership between the Institute of Politics and the jail began in the fall of 2015, when Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart served as an IOP fellow. Since becoming sheriff in 2006, Dart has been commended for championing a series of progressive initiatives at the jail.
Dart, who has made the jail’s operations more transparent and accessible to journalists, invited the writers of The Gate to tour the facility and speak to detainees.
Dart intends to start an outreach program with all universities in the greater Chicago area as part of a series of measures aimed at reducing high recidivism rates. The University of Chicago will be the first school to participate.
Co-editor-in-chief of The Gate, Haley Schwab, who has led the project thus far, emphasized the importance of civic engagement at the underfunded jail. Cook County Jail is the largest single-site jail in the country, housing a maximum of 10,000 men and women from divisions that range from minimum to maximum security.
The writing workshops will be an hour long and held once a month on Saturdays in winter and spring quarters. Pairs of student volunteers will be assigned 10 inmates. The workshops will be framed around prompts that encourage self-reflection, but will not relate to the crimes of which the inmates have been accused. The Gate hopes to eventually publish some of the detainees’ writing.
All student participants are required to sign a waiver absolving the University of any liability for their participation in the project. The jail had asked that students run workshops with as many detainees as possible, at all levels of security, but the University stipulated that students work only with minimum security, non-violent offenders in groups segregated by gender, according to Schwab. Student volunteers are permitted to share their first names only, and no personal information.
On Wednesday, The Gate held an info session about the program.
Students discussed the implications of inmates’ education level, race, and socioeconomic status. “I suggest we keep our assumptions out the door. I think that’ll help in terms of being able to connect with these people for who they are, and not what we think they are,” fourth-year Elizabeth Adetiba said.
Schwab agreed with the importance of empathy and setting aside expectations, but emphasized maintaining a professional distance.
“Personal connection, I definitely want to caution against,” she said. “The jail has made very clear to us that ‘connecting with people’ is not one of the goals. They are concerned with people remaining at a distance so as to not complicate our relationships and why we’re there. That’s why we’re on a first-name basis only.”
Dylan Wells, an events intern at the IOP, toured the jail with students last year and interviewed a panel of inmates. She called it one of her most memorable experiences. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and the amount of access was unexpected." Wells published an article, “Correcting Corrections,” describing the tour in Issue II of The Gate, 2015.
To get involved, e-mail Haley Schwab at firstname.lastname@example.org for an ID application by Friday, November 11.