Chicago Ideas Asks Panel, Audience to ‘Reimagine Prison’

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, left, MacArthur Foundation President Julie Stasch, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Vera Institute of Justice President Nick Turner discuss the intricacies of the nation’s criminal justice system at the “Reimagining Prison” event Feb. 23. (Maya Miller / Chicago Tonight)Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, left, MacArthur Foundation President Julie Stasch, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Vera Institute of Justice President Nick Turner discuss the intricacies of the nation’s criminal justice system at the “Reimagining Prison” event Feb. 23. (Maya Miller / Chicago Tonight)

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the nation’s prison system “defies logic” at an event last week hosted by Chicago Ideas and the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.

Foxx shared the stage with former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, MacArthur Foundation President Julia Stasch and Vera Institute of Justice President Nick Turner to close out the three-part program that also included a dramatic reading and musical performance.

Throughout the program, participants touched on factors that contribute to incarceration rates, including wealth, race, employment opportunities and violence.

Foxx said that in Chicago, there is a connection between violence and the areas where individuals settle down after being in prison. 

“If you made a heat map of where the highest incidents of violence are and you look at an overlay of most concentration of folks who are returning from our penal institution, you would see the correlation,” Foxx said to Chicago Tonight prior to Thursday's event.

The West Side neighborhood of Austin appears to illustrate this connection. It contains the zip code with the largest number of individuals who were released from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2016 according to data compiled by Rep. Danny Davis. The Chicago Tribune has recorded 74 shooting victims in Austin since the start of the year through Feb. 27–the highest of any neighborhood. 

“The collateral consequences of incarceration carry on for a long period of time,” Foxx said. “It’s not surprising that’s where we see the highest instances of gun violence.”

One part of the problem, Foxx said, is a lack of quality programs within prisons to assist the population with education, coaching and vocational skills. She plans to use her platform to address this through legislation and new partnerships with organizations like Adult Redeploy Illinois.

However, Foxx said a cultural shift is also needed.

“At the base, we have to change the mindset that people who are in prison are unworthy.”

–Kim Foxx


Duncan, who serves as the managing partner of Emerson Collective, implored all Chicagoans to take responsibility for the headline-grabbing violence throughout the city and begin educating themselves on the challenges communities face when their populations are disproportionately incarcerated

“Until we really start to understand, and walk and experience as best we can what these young folks are dealing with, we’re going to continue to play around the margins,” Duncan said. “I just would challenge all of us to act with an extraordinary sense of urgency because it’s not fair and it’s not right, and the level of fear, and grief, and anger—it’s overwhelming.”

Duncan also suggested future forums on criminal justice take place in neighborhoods where incarceration rates are highest, in order to make a greater impact on the individuals who come face-to-face with these issues.

Foxx agrees there is a need to add resources to neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty, violence and incarceration rates. 

“We are losing so much by allowing these communities to go to despair,” Foxx said. 

Themes related to the “Reimagining Prison” event on Feb. 23 decorate a board on display in the lobby of Jones College Prep High School. (Maya Miller / Chicago Tonight)Themes related to the “Reimagining Prison” event on Feb. 23 decorate a board on display in the lobby of Jones College Prep High School. (Maya Miller / Chicago Tonight)

Illinois leads the nation in overcrowded prisons, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showing that the state held 16,183 more people than they were intended to in 2015.

The state has also recorded high rates of recidivism, with 48 percent of individuals released from prison getting another conviction within three years, according to data compiled by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. The average cost associated with one recidivism event is $118,746.

“We have a merry-go-round of folks going in and out, and for some it validates what we’re doing,” Foxx said. “But, maybe it’s our intervention techniques that are pushing them to respond that way. What if we tried doing it a different way?”

Though in the past the state’s attorney’s office has taken a back seat in aiding inmates’ reentry into everyday life, Foxx has partnered with programs, such as the Safer Foundation, that assist people with criminal records through housing and employment processes. 

“We can plug in referrals for folks to reentry programs, rather than use the resources of the jail,” Foxx explained. “Barriers to jobs, education, the ability to be mobile all contribute to recidivism.”

Stasch, the MacArthur Foundation president, said the country is in a unique moment in which the public's faith in major institutions such as the criminal justice system is faltering, while political will around criminal justice reform is prevalent. 

“The places that I have the most optimism,” Stasch said, “are the ones where people in the system look beyond their individual set of incentives that guide what they do, and say 'No, we have to come together across that, and really grapple with this issue.'“


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