This op-ed by Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, Chicago Beyond’s Managing Director of Justice Initiatives, was published on October 13, 2022 in Daily Herald.
Every day, millions of incarcerated people are fighting to survive the trauma that occurs in America’s jails and prisons. However, they aren’t the only ones affected by our correctional system. The unfortunate truth is that through training, policies, and procedures, our correctional system actively dehumanizes every individual behind the wall — both people who are incarcerated and the individuals working inside of these institutions.
As a clinical psychologist and former warden of one of the largest jails in the country — Cook County jail in Chicago — I’ve witnessed the cyclical violence that occurs when the system tightens controls and uses punishment as its primary tool. It was also during my tenure at Cook County Jail that I witnessed how people thrive when their environment allows them to be and feel protected, resilient, and whole.
That is what we mean by “holistic safety,” and through my work with Chicago Beyond — an impact investor working toward a more equitable future for young people — I know that there are steps we can take to achieve it.
For example, in 2019, Chicago Beyond partnered with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to create a more trauma-informed approach to family visitation. We started by leveling the playing field so that staff could begin to see similarities in themselves to the people they were historically trained to fear — people who were incarcerated. To do this, we created a web-based training that explained the universal impact of trauma, strategies correctional staff could employ to reduce the impact of their own experience of trauma and strategies they could use to more effectively engage with people who had also been exposed to trauma — every person they encounter in corrections.
We then created a model for trauma-informed, family-friendly visitation based on research literature, community engagement and pilot visitations that were conducted in partnership with the Chicago Children’s Museum and Lurie’s Center for Childhood Resilience, an organization with expertise in child mental health and trauma. In the pilot visitations, incarcerated fathers were able to visit with their children and families in child-friendly spaces like the Chicago Children’s Museum, dressed in plain clothes and in healthy, human interactions with officers and program staff who were also dressed in plain clothes. We then worked with the Sheriff’s Office to embed this visitation model into the fabric of their institution through a robust revision process for policies and procedures.
Through this partnership with a visionary correctional administrator, all of the correctional staff have now been trained in trauma-informed practices, and all people incarcerated (and vaccinated) in the Cook County Jail are able to experience more trauma-informed visitation practices, including the humanizing power of physical touch.
These humanizing changes are also beneficial for staff, allowing them to find meaning in their jobs — connecting families, providing encouragement and hope, and seeing happiness in a field that is often wrought with darkness. At a time when most correctional institutions are severely understaffed, correctional staff at the Cook County Jail have shared that they truly enjoy working in visitation.
This sort of shift away from tightly controlled visitation practices and toward a culture that inspires people to be better humans is a perfect example of what we mean by “holistic safety.”
Another step we can take to make our jails holistically safer is to protect and expand the right to vote for incarcerated individuals.
Research from the National Library of Medicine has shown that disenfranchisement can trigger two psychological stressors: low control and social exclusion. These stressors create a recipe for mental health conditions, unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance use, tense conditions and violence.
Studies have shown that by allowing justice-impacted individuals to vote, we can alleviate these stressors. In 2020, Cook County Jail established the first in-person early voting for a general election. And in this year’s primaries, the jail had a higher turnout than the city as a whole. Other jails like Harris County in Houston, Texas, have followed suit, recognizing that the right to vote can improve conditions at their facilities.
The Sentencing Project, a national research and advocacy group, recently published a national report that highlights ways to guarantee voting access for incarcerated voters. The act of voting can empower justice-impacted individuals and give them a sense of personal agency. This is especially important for people who, through incarceration, may have lost control over their day-to-day activities. It also reaffirms that these individuals are a part of and connected to the community where they reside and actively working to make it better.
Every member of our community — including people who are incarcerated and correctional staff — deserves to feel safe. It is time for us to shift our vision of safety from one focused on control to one that allows every individual in America’s jails and prisons to feel protected, resilient, and whole.
Nneka Jones Tapia is the Managing Director of Justice Initiatives at Chicago Beyond. She was previously the warden of Cook County Jail and was one of the first psychologists in America to lead a correctional facility.