Chicago Inside the justice system

A Faith that Does Justice

For the past 19 years, Father Peter Breslin, S.J., has traveled from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois, on Sundays to minister to a small group of people. As he drives, he often ruminates over what God might want these individuals to hear. After two decades of visits, his educated guess is that God would choose a message of hope, redemption, and conversion. For Breslin, it is about intentionally turning away from the things in a person’s life that are not life-giving.

On his Sunday visits to Waukegan, Breslin says Mass and discusses Scripture with people he describes as possessing deep spirituality and faith—the inmates of Lake County Jail. Breslin, a clinical professor of biology at Loyola University Chicago, is part of Lake County’s Inmate Religious Volunteer program, which seeks to combat recidivism and has attracted more than 200 volunteers from 22 different religious organizations. According to the Lake County Jail, it can hold more than 700 individuals and often detains more than 8,000 people over the course of a year.

At the jail, Breslin routinely ministers to a group of about 50 to 80 people, saying a Mass in both English and Spanish, along with a prayer service. Working with deacons and laypeople, he alternates between visiting the men’s and women’s unit every other visit.

In the United States, according the Bureau of Justice, nearly 2.2 million adults were in prisons and jails at the end of 2016. And, many of the institutions these men and women occupy rarely provide hope or comprehensive rehabilitation services. In turn, incarcerated individuals face many barriers when they are released—from securing employment and housing to reintegrating into their communities and families.

“Prison walls can keep people in and keep people out—I want to keep them connected with their family on the outside. We hope to inspire each person that comes to us in different ways.”
— Father Peter Breslin, S.J.

Prison ministry is an important part of the Catholic Church’s outreach. The goal of Breslin’s ministry is to communicate a message of hope and conversion and to lift people up, but the conversations he has with those in jail are not one-sided.

“They have increased my hope and my strength to deal with difficult things in my life,” Breslin said. “God is always willing to forgive and put the past behind. I remind them of that, and in turn remind myself.”

Breslin encourages those who are incarcerated to pray, which he sees as a helpful connection with the outside world. It is also an important part of the total rehabilitation process—in addition to GED classes, addiction services, arts programs, behavioral therapy, and more.

Breslin views his prison ministry as a natural element of the University’s mission, as well as an important connection to the wider community. “I always make sure the inmates know my connection to Loyola,” he said. He is happy to represent the University, and as a minister at the jail he draws upon his Ignatian spirituality to present the ideal of finding God in all things and all places. On Sundays, he is sure to let the inmates of Lake County Jail know that he finds God in them.

“How can I present God’s love to them in a way that is real, that is concrete, and that is inspiring?" he said. “If I can do that, I feel that I am accomplishing my mission to bring good news to the people who need it the most—which includes those people who are incarcerated, many of whom are poor and haven’t had the advantage of education that Loyola students have.”

A culture of service

Father Breslin is not the only member of the Loyola community serving people in the criminal justice system. Individuals and schools throughout the University are actively involved with incarcerated populations.

A group of committed law students share their Saturdays with young people at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC)—providing lessons and insights about legal processes, rights, and responsibilities. This program, supervised by Mary Bird, the School of Law's director of public service programs, has operated since 1994 and reaches more than 150 detained young people every year.

"It's important for me to help young people who have been detained empower themselves through learning about the law and their rights,” said Emily Knox, a second-year law student who has worked with minors in the criminal justice system in Lawndale, Illinois, in addition to volunteering at the JTDC. “By working with these young people and seeing how detention affects them, I am better able to help shape effective ways of working with the communities to keep them and others out of detention.

"I hope to show them that they are not forgotten, that people care, and that we are all connected."
— Emily Knox, law student

And law students are not the only Loyolans stepping up. The College of Arts and Sciences connects with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated populations through a number of departments, programs, initiatives, and individuals. Organized by the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Summit of Hope is one such program, hosting expos that bring together community members and organizations across Illinois with parolees and probationers. The goal of the Summit of Hope is to provides them with health care and education information, family service support, and essential items like clothing and toiletries as they reenter society. Loyola students regularly volunteer to assist vendors or to partner with individuals to guide them through the expo.

The Summit of Hope draws students from many different programs but the connection to Loyola’s Jesuit tradition is felt by many, including criminal justice major Jessica Nosalsk. “My Jesuit education has preached compassion for all members of society,” she said. “The conversations with my assigned parolee were memorable, and when we were finished, we wished each other well. It was authentic.”

The School of Social Work houses a community-based research center—the Center for Research on Self-Sufficiency (CROSS)—that works to empower people through its research on psychological self-sufficiency (PSS) and a practice model called Transforming Impossible into Possible (TIP). Both are focused on helping economically disadvantaged individuals, including the formerly incarcerated.

The University also partners with Safer Foundation, a nonprofit that works exclusively with people who have criminal records, on its Accelerating Reentry for Returning Citizens (ARRC) program. Funded by a federal grant, Safer Foundation incorporated the PSS theory and TIP model into its mentoring services, and ARRC's small staff was trained by Philip Hong, PhD, the director of CROSS and professor and associate dean for research in the School of Social Work. Other organizations also use Professor Hong’s TIP model for programs serving similar populations.

This problem spreads across Chicago as well as the rest of the country. According to an Urban Institute Study from 2008, incarcerated individuals struggle to find and maintain employment compared to applicants with clean records. When employed, they typically earn less than before they were detained, too. And they can encounter difficulties while searching for stable housing, burdening their families or risking homelessness.

The goal of prison ministry is to help break down these barriers. As Father Breslin put it, “What we want to do is make sure they know they haven’t been forgotten, but rather that they are actively cared about.”