On October 27, 2015, I went to the Cook County Jail. Not because I had been arrested, but because I was going on a tour.
Upon arrival, our group – composed of approximately 40 students from one of the wealthiest universities in the country – filed into the intake room, where “new arrivals” are dropped off. Our guide began to explain the jail’s processing procedure, but I couldn’t hear him because of the man who occupied the cell on my left. He shuffled around the space, hands and feet chained, yelling, “If you are a human being, get the hell out of here! Save yourself!”
A wave of nausea came over me.
On my right, more “new arrivals.” Sleeping. Pacing. Staring at the group of students who had come to the jail for their “tour.” In that moment, I realized that nothing – literally nothing – differentiated me from the people on the other side of the bars. As a human being, I have the same capacity for evil as anyone else. Only by the grace of God was I standing in the group of university students, and not with those recently arrested.
The Cook County Jail holds approximately 9,000 people, many of whom rightly deserve retribution. But it also holds many others – the poor, the homeless, and the mentally ill – who have been incarcerated not because they need punishment, but because they need help. I grew up in rural Montana, where issues of unjust incarceration were not very apparent. Not until living in Chicago did I understand that the presence of a justice system does not guarantee that justice is granted, especially to the vulnerable and powerless members of society.
My visit to the Cook County Jail not only impressed upon me urgent need to address these issues, which affect all of society, but it illuminated my own place in the world and the attitude with which I must approach my future work in the justice system. While in the jail, a statement made by Bryan Stevenson in his book “Just Mercy” regarding why he has chosen a career in criminal defense was running through my head: “….I don’t do what I do because it is required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice. I do it because I am broken, too.”
Before my visit to the Cook County Jail, I thought I was meant to pursue a career in justice because I was unique person who possessed the skill necessary to correct the wrongs in our justice system. This exposition made me realize, however, that I have passion for this work not because I am a special person, or a talented person, but because I am a broken person. All human beings share the condition of being broken, regardless of how significant or visible that brokenness may be. This shared condition – this common humanity – motivates my pursuit of a career in justice.