Chicago’s Jail Ministry Coordinator Talks Spiritual Needs And ‘God’s Merciful Love’


Emily Cortina: We serve individuals affected by incarceration in Cook and Lake County. That means the central focus of our ministry is Cook County Jail, where there are more than 5,000 people incarcerated on any given day. We also have ministries that serve families who have loved ones who are incarcerated and who serve folks who are returning to the community from prison or from jail.

We also reach out to folks who are in prisons across the state of Illinois because often we’ll meet them when they’re in Cook County Jail and then they’ll be sentenced and transferred to a prison downstate. We try to be creative and use our resources in the best way we can to reach as many people as we can. 

Carlos: What tends to be the state of material and spiritual needs of those that Kolbe is helping?

Cortina: Each person’s story is different. But we can see, generally, being incarcerated is a low point in someone’s life, whether they were already experiencing different crises and challenges in their life or things were going well and this was an unexpected bump in the road. Being incarcerated tends to be a crisis point. So we’re providing affirmation and hope in that crisis. When folks are able, we’re trying to make space for them to examine their relationship with themselves, with others and with God in a way that can hopefully lead to some healing and discovery of their goodness and their sense of worth. When someone is incarcerated, they’re subjected to a number of processes that lead to a dehumanizing feeling. You’re given a number, you’re searched, and you’re put behind bars in a place that’s void of color and any kind of comfort.

We try to bring humanity back to them, and of course, it’s limited by what we can do inside a facility like this. But by that human contact, they think, “I’m human. You’re human. We’re brothers and sisters.” In Scripture, Jesus tells us when you visit someone in prison, you’re visiting me. We try to put that into practice and remind ourselves every day that when we visit someone in prison, we are seeing Jesus’ face reflected. This isn’t me going to help someone else who’s lesser than me. It’s not me trying to offer something they don’t have. It’s just meeting human to human and reflecting God’s love in each other. 

Carlos: Who is participating in the ministry’s work? 

Cortina: Our volunteer body consists of folks who come from all over. Some people have had direct experiences of incarceration in their families. Others have no connection to incarceration, but they feel this tug on their heart to draw close. We see oftentimes that volunteers are transformed by the experience of ministry in the jail as well. They’ll oftentimes say that they get more out of it than they feel they’re giving because they’re coming face to face with God and walking with our brothers and sisters who are suffering. 

Carlos: Is Kolbe focusing solely on spiritual assistance, or are you tending to material needs too? 

Cortina: Periodically, we will have collection drives for socks, washcloths and feminine hygiene products that the folks in the jail need because they don’t have access to those things readily. We periodically mobilize mostly Catholic parishes and individuals who want to help with those needs. In our ministry with folks who are returning from jail or prison, we try to meet their immediate material needs. We try to work together with other organizations in the Chicago area that are also providing services in this area, providing referrals, connecting them and then following up.

Carlos: Do you find that the jails are giving you the space to do your work? 

Cortina: I will say we have a good relationship with jail administration, and the folks that we work with on the organizational level really understand the need for good ministry and for walking with folks in jail. There are lots of things about the way jails work that are not conducive to spiritual growth. It might be noisy, it’s not comfortable, you’re not eating super well, sleeping super well. But we do find that in most cases the officers that we meet try to help us do our ministry. They try to give us as much access as they can.

The officers have a very difficult job too, and we try to recognize the intense stress they’re under and minister to them in whatever way we can, offering them encouragement and hope. Because if we can help folks feel better, they get along better and they respect each other more, and it creates an environment where there’s a little bit more peace and mutual understanding. 

Carlos: What’s an important lesson you’ve drawn from this work? 

Cortina: Every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. We defend the human dignity of every person, despite what their criminal record may be. When we sit down at a table with someone, we realize that we’re both human. Related to that, one of the messages we try to bring to the public is that this is something that affects all of us. We try to remove it from society. We try to remove people from society by incarcerating them. But this is something that affects all of us. Even when we visit communities who don’t feel the effects of incarceration as much, we try to help with understanding that it’s something we all have a stake in. We all have a role in building justice that looks different than just punishment. 

Carlos: Could you delve more into how this work relates to the Catholic faith and the mission of the Archdiocese of Chicago? 

Cortina: We have this tradition of praying to God with our brokenness, with our sin, and putting those in God’s hands and receiving forgiveness. One of the things we foster is hope in God’s merciful love. It’s not God who wants to punish us, who wants to put us through difficulty. We have a God who wants to shower us with mercy and love. We also have in our church the idea of restorative justice. That justice doesn’t come through punishment. Justice comes through righting relationships, which means meeting person to person, talking, sharing our story, letting our truth be heard and seeing humanity in each other. That brings healing, which creates a much larger effect in our society than punishment, which often has detrimental effects on individuals and communities. 

Carlos: What impact have you seen from Kolbe’s work?

Cortina: We hear so often from folks how meaningful it is to have our presence. We get letters from folks who are in prison or jail expressing that they had felt forgotten and now they feel that their church hasn’t forgotten them or that God hasn’t forgotten them. One of the very simple, small things we do is sending Christmas cards and Easter cards, and we’ll get responses saying, “I haven’t gotten a piece of mail or a call in however many years and this means so much to me to have that connection with someone.” It’s in those stories where we start to see that impact — how meaningful those encounters are in helping folks remember that they’re not alone, they’re not forgotten. 

Carlos: Does Kolbe advocate for any legislative policies? 

Cortina: Kolbe House is part of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which is a coalition of all the dioceses in Illinois, and they have an advocacy branch. We have a committee where we’ll look at bills that are offered and see if we’d like to support or not support or just kind of share our experience in a certain area. 

In Cook County, there are some individuals who can take an alternative path to the typical court system and go through a restorative justice court. We supported a bill that ensured any restorative justice court proceedings were confidential and couldn’t be used against them in other ways.

So if they’re doing truth telling, where they might be apologizing for having done something — which is something that restorative courts allow for, unlike a typical court — what they say can’t be used against them in another way. So it creates a space of trust and vulnerability in restorative justice courts.

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