The John Howard Association


During my visits at the county jail and other places, I discovered an organization that helps the ones in need. The inmates that are inside the jails and institutions are the ones who come first with this organization. It’s called the John Howard Association.

The John Howard Association monitors the prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers here in Illinois. Their job is to review law makers, and their laws. They also make policies on prison reform and try to educate the public. They wish to bring about fair and humane treatment of the inmates in the prison populations. John Howard Association provides direct and indirect service to the incarcerated, corrections professionals and affected communities. JHA strengthens its advocacy work by developing relationships with reform organizations.

The organization was named for John Howard, a humanitarian and prison reformer. John Howard was a sheriff in England who lived in the eighteenth century. He traveled across the nation, checking prison conditions. He felt that the inmates should have someone to represent their needs. He also felt that programming was as important as the custody part of what the prisons are supposed to do. He felt that the inmates should have training and education.

JHA has fought for prison jobs and payment to the inmates for their labor. They advocate for inmates with special needs, such as mental problems, helping them get pre-sentencing psychiatric examinations. They also work with inmates with other special needs, inmates with disabilities, pregnant women, and juvenile offenders. They reject the idea of “one size fits all” prison programs: they believe, for example, that the older inmates need a customized treatment program.

John Howard Association President James R. "Chip" Coldren Jr., Ph. D. Photo by Cenabeth Cross

In 1946, the group began to expand its focus to public education and policy development. In the 1950s, they began publishing many articles and radio broadcasts on the conditions of the Illinois prison system and what happens on the inside. In the 1960s, they published tracts urging the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. In the 1970s, JHA joined the Illinois Prisons and Jails Project under the leadership of Executive Director Michael J. Mahoney. Since then, the JHA staff has taken on trained volunteers who visit the both adult prisons and juvenile institutions, including the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and weekly visits to the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC).

JHA issued the first major “Duran Report,” referring to the environment of the inmates at the CCDOC. As the court appointed monitor in the Duran vs. Sheahan et al. case, the federal class action lawsuit about conditions, confinement and overcrowding of the facility, they conducted 41 monitoring visits to the Cook County Department of Corrections last year.

Also in 2004, the JHA conducted 10 monitoring visits at Illinois Department of Corrections adult facilities, with participation of 12 board members and citizen volunteers. JHA initiated a series of special monitoring visits to the newly established therapeutic substance abuse program at the Sheridan Correctional Center. They also implemented expanded monitoring activities at Cook County.

After many years, JHA has finally begun to get respect. They have been able to observe the staff when prison riots break out, visit the Tamms Correctional facility and assist more than 33 states with their suggestions for improvement to corrections professionals throughout the nation. Their Juvenile Justice Reform Initiative is designed to improve the conditions of confinement for the younger inmates. This program was put into effect in the year 2000.

On Tuesday, Feb. 8, I had an opportunity to interview the chairperson, Laura Lane Fergerson. Here’s what she said.

Residents’ Journal: How did you become involved with JHA?

Laura Lane Fergerson: A friend, Cliff Kelly, was a volunteer with JHA, so he nominated me to the board in 1997. I have been board chairperson since fall of 2003.

RJ: What kinds of subjects do the board members discuss during meetings?

LLF: We have two large monitoring systems working and we give updates on visits. We monitor the Duran decree on overcrowding and talk about policy issues. If we take on any new policy issues we will hear from someone on the board. The prison system is not prepared to return inmates back into society. Our focus is [inmates returning back into society], who needs to be there, and rehabilitation. We take the position of monitoring. We’re in the jails throughout the year and it’s important that we take these issues and put them in action.

RJ: Why is it important to have an organization like this in place?

LLF: There are too many people of color and the poor in jail. Seventy per cent are Blacks and Latinos. Some haven’t been convicted but can’t make bond. The rehabilitation process[es] in the prisons aren’t working. Sheridan Correctional Center was closed then reopened. The warden and others created the center for drug addicts, which we look at as a crime. There are a few bright spots and changes.

Laura went into a meeting right after the interview and I proceeded to interview one of the volunteers. His name was Philip J. Carrigan, Ph. D. as it said on a card he had given me. A resident of Waukegan, he had driven to the courthouse on 26th Street just for this.

RJ: How did you become involved with JHA?

Philip Carrigan: I’m a scientist and I worked for a large pharmacy. I was involved with the homeless people [in Waukegan] and I would visit them in jail there. A friend introduced me to Cliff Kelly and I joined. Then Eddie Washington ran for State Representative in Waukegan and when his spot opened I asked to be on the board.

RJ: Do you or have you heard of any of your fellow workers experienced any trouble with prisoners or prison officials while working?

PC: No. The best part is the visiting of the jails about once a week. It’s my vocation. It’s what I’m most interested in. Others go too.

RJ: Do you ever get emotionally involved with the inmates?

PC: Occasionally I get involved.

RJ: Do you ever become fearful or felt intimidated while working with the inmates?

PC: No. The JHA is well known in the Cook County jail. Charles Fasano [Director of Prisons and Jails Program] is well known and we meet with the warden or superintendent. The JHA is seen as an advocate so we ask what is needed. There may be 200 or more visitors because of the JHA. We oversee segregation, look at the cleanliness and the food. We check on conditions for writing and can [the inmates] afford it. Some want to talk to the prisoners to find out what happened, how the case is going, they ask if they get visitors. Many people on the streets can’t visit if they have a warrant on file. I learned this in Lake County where people asked me to go see some of their buddies. People with mental illnesses don’t want to talk.

Phil was the one who informed me that John Howard lived in England.

Phil went on to say that “there had been many organizations like the JHA but it has dwindled down to us. We mandate reports for being a positive force on this issue for human rights.” Phillip feels there is no rehabilitation in the prisons he has visited and he feels that guards and other prison personnel should have to go to anger management classes.

On the 11th I went to talk to the president of JHA himself, James R. “Chip” Coldren Jr., Ph. D. His office is located at 300 W Adams.

RJ: What is the organization about?

JC: It’s about citizen participation and monitoring the correctional system..

RJ: How do you recruit volunteers?

JC: Several different ways. If you’re a member of the board, there’s an expectation that you’ll do monitoring work. We do a lot of publications and we do ask people to volunteer. When college students want to intern, part of the course is to volunteer. Very rarely on occasion someone will be turned away for some reason or other. You fill out an application, we review it at the office, if we feel we want to ask any further questions we call them in for an interview. Once we approve it we send it to the organization to do a background check. If you’re only visiting locally there’s no need for a background check. If approved we require you to go through a training session.

RJ: How are you funded?

JC: Different ways, up until now we were funded by United Way. We’re a non-profit organization so we accept donations and contributions. When we do our work for court cases, we are paid by the courts or the county. Occasionally we do contract work. We’re very busy, we answer over 1000 phone calls a year, we conduct about 75 visits a year in addition to all other advocacy work.

RJ: Do you get emotional in any way?

JC: Can’t avoid it. I took a group on Western and Lake and we passed a locked door and a kid about 14, a small skinny kid, and it made us sad just to see that. People who come along, when they see all the black men and women locked up, it’s emotional. The emotional thing is to observe a naked man with a mental problem to be locked up that way. Yes, it gets emotional. We can’t ever be satisfied and you can’t satisfy everyone. You always have to improve what you’re doing.

We talked a bit more and he asked me why I wanted to join the organization. I told him that my brothers had been incarcerated, all 3. One, the oldest, had started when he was about 12. When he turned 31, he begged us to get him out because he said he was losing his mind. He never said that before and he had been in Sheridan, Pontiac, Statesville and all the rest. He started at the Audy Home on Roosevelt Rd., so my family and I visited all the prisons he went to. So, we got him out. The next day he went to an empty apartment somewhere on Marquette Rd. and killed himself.

When my brother was in Sheridan, he was boxing. He was good and he had won the golden gloves. His time was up but they kept him anyway until my parents threatened to get help. They then sent him to Pontiac before he was released. I would like to think that this was the organization that helped us secure his freedom.

Chip told me that something similar had happened to his brother.

The JHA has many plans for the future. They want to pinpoint and designate issues that need immediate action. They want to continue to monitor correction facilities, respond to requests for assistance and publish a Prisons & Jails Report. In the community leadership arena, they want to develop an outreach plan, start a website, increase public education and outreach programs and they want to establish a policy center for correctional professionals. They want to reorganize their board and redraft their bylaws. Last but not least, they want to come up with new ways to raise funds and to increase board’s fundraising. All of these plans have started and they have set a deadline of 2007 to complete them.

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