S taff of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) along with 60 volunteers conducted in- depth, one-on-one surveys with 235 of the 1,117 women detained in Cook County Jail on October 31, 2001.
WHY STUDY WOMEN IN JAIL? Agencies serving homeless women in Chicago find that these women are increasingly reporting involvement with county corrections systems, violence, and, regular involvement in prostitution. Detention rates for women in Cook County have increased by 89 percent over the past decade. Furthermore, over half of women incarcerated in Illinois prisons are arrested in Cook County. The majority of women at Cook County Jail are detained for nonviolent offenses and have been through the system many times.
PURPOSE These surveys were designed and conducted to gain an understanding of women’s lives that may dictate and support policy initiatives and further direct service provid- ers in assisting those in need. This study was conducted to document the lives of women detained in Cook County Jail and promote understanding of their life experiences. It reveals a great deal about the lives, current circumstances, and future hopes of 235 women detained that day.
WHO WAS SURVEYED Women surveyed were those present on the specified date the surveys were administered. This sample does not represent all women who were detained in the jail on October 31, 2001, nor is it a random sample. However, we believe that the collective results display a reliable picture of the lives of women detained in Cook County Jail.
PROJECT HISTORY As a response to growing concerns regarding the many issues faced by women detained in Cook County Jail, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless created a policy committee to better advocate for the needs of women in jail, for alternatives to incarceration, and for programs that assist women in successfully transitioning from jail to community. Since then this committee has been folded into the policy work of the Prostitution Alternatives Round Table (PART), also a CCH project. PART is a network of organizations in Chicago working to improve social service delivery systems and to promote legislative advocacy to increase resources for persons in prostitution in the Chicago metropolitan area. As of March 2002, PART has 31
“I would like to help the youth, because I was young once and I went through life the hard way. I want to give back.”
Stable housing and financial security are top desires for women detained in jail. Over and over the wo- men wished to get out of jail, secure housing, be re- united with their children, and get good jobs. As one woman stated, “I want to have a nice life, me and my children, grandchildren, and all my family. That’s it.” Being reunited with children and securing healthy bonds with family members are very important to most women. Many wished for the health and well- being of their loved ones and those who had helped them in their lives. Some women wished for world peace and desired to live a healthier, spiritual life.
Many women had regrets and wished to fix past mistakes. One woman wanted to “turn back the hands of time—just before things got so bad—and not make the same mistakes that put [me] here.” Women seem to desperately want to gain a sense of “normalcy” and live in peace with their families. One woman stated, “I wish I could not have made the mistakes I made with my kids-could have been there to talk to them, meet their teachers.”
Many women expressed the desire to help others. One woman said she wanted “to be a millionaire and help the homeless.” Another wanted to get “a lot of money and help other women out-buy an agency, a drop-in center.”
affiliated members, and formal enrollment is occurring on an ongoing basis. These members include substance abuse programs, domestic violence and sexual assault providers, and governmental entities such as the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.
CCH was founded in 1980 to respond to the growing number of homeless individuals and families in Chicago and the lack of resources to meet their needs. Today, CCH’s core principles remain unshaken: that decent, safe, and affordable housing is a basic human right and that solutions to homelessness lie in addressing root causes such as the shortage of affordable housing and living-wage jobs.
CHICAGO COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS 3