The sound of steel hitting steel twitched my head right. Fifty feet away, cellblock 3A's door clanged shut behind Reverend Henderson. From my seated post at the back row of the Television Area, I followed the tall gray-suited man striding toward me and 3A's fifteen inmates planted in chairs facing the screen. Zero juvenile heads turned. We had just completed Sunday breakfast and were watching an action movie—the detainees' only option. No cards. No ping-pong. No socializing. No dashing around the courtyard. Near the door, my lone coworker, Newton, a confident man in a football jersey, noticed our visitor and shut off the television from his seat at the Console, a metal and fiberglass desk with a panel of knobs and switches. Newton and I were Children's Attendants—guards without uniforms, badges, or weapons at Chicago's 500-cell Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
Certain inmates were charged as adults with carjacking and first-degree murder. The facility had already housed some infamous Chicago children—Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, at age ten and eleven, who later would be sought for the 1994 murder of a teen girl, killed by mistake in a gang shooting. Days later, authorities located Robert facedown-dead in a pedestrian tunnel and soon arrested two older teen brothers from Robert's Gangster Disciples, alleging that they killed Robert so that he couldn't spill to police their putting him up to the shooting. That same fall, a ten- and eleven-year-old dropped a five-year-old boy to his death from a housing project window fourteen stories up because he and his older brother refused to help them steal candy. In 2002 would come fifteen-year-old William Ligue storming Comisky Park's baseball field with his father to tackle and pummel the Kansas City Royals' first base coach during a White Sox game. When cell phone footage in September 2009 showed a mob of teens beating sixteen-year-old Darrion Albert to death with wood planks on his foot journey home from school, fellow sixteen-year-old Eric Carson would be identified and brought here, having already been incarcerated but exonerated on an adult charge the previous spring.
The screen flashing blank induced no response from the boys. Attendant Newton looked down at the Console while Reverend Henderson stared ahead at those seated in the TV Area. I watched them both, though. This Special Program was new to me. Henderson rounded a glass wall partition and breezed up the five rows. He stopped at the darkened screen and thumbed open a Bible. I tried to catch his eyes but he glanced at the pages and then at the boys. The man showed no joyous vibe of opportunity, but rather an unfilled stare. Little changed when he opened his mouth and read from the Bible and started preaching.
Minutes into the sermon, the Reverend frowned at a slim inmate in the second row. "Young man, please step out."
My perch against the back wall allowed me to monitor every inmate at every moment and police any conversation. I hadn't seen this kid or any kid, many of whom equaled me in size, do anything wrong. Given everyone and everything sitting in front of me, I was happy.
"You said the same thing last week," Lamar groaned, tipping his head forward.
"Young man, I said when I started that everyone has to stay awake or you'll have to leave, so you need to step out."
Lamar, fifteen years old in wrinkly jeans and a baggy red sweatshirt, shifted in the lime-green armchair, one not solely plastic-coated fiberglass, and twisted his upper body to me. His face made furrows and ridges. "Is he staff?"
Our guest indeed drew no paycheck from Cook County. Still I urged, "Just sit up and listen. It's not gonna hurt you to pay attention."
Like Lamar's chair, many TV Area seats were comfortably soft, perhaps deliberately, to foster inmate sedateness. Napping there violated no rules of ours. In truth, I would rather the juveniles have drifted into sheep-counting realms, never causing me to worry about them talking or brawling. But Reverend Henderson set his own rules.
Propping himself higher and straighter, Lamar's head leaned to one side as if resting against an invisible wall. This semblance of interest satisfied Reverend Henderson enough. He returned to the sermon. Lamar stayed put and I congratulated myself for moderating the dispute. Being a Children's Attendant could be summed up as Conflict Observation and then Conflict Resolution. Conflict between juveniles. Conflict between juveniles and me. Conflict between my coworkers. Conflict between my coworkers and administration. And now, conflict between a sullen juvenile with spongy hair and a volunteer preacher whom I thought was screwing up mightily by not preaching to an exclusively volunteer audience removed from the cellblock. Four years earlier as a local Bible college senior, I was an unpaid counselor at this very jail, gathering willing inmates, a few at a time, and walking them to visitation rooms down the bricked corridors for Scripture lessons. My participants never lost consciousness. I relished those friendships such that after grad school in my native Texas, longing for the real world's real people with real problems, I quit academia to be a full-time Children's Attendant back at Chicago's juvenile jail.
Retaining their street clothes, Lamar and every other juvenile "on Intake" had just been arrested and were waiting for a judge to indict them or free them. If indicted, they would be assigned to one of our twenty-seven regular cellblocks and outfitted in trousers (khaki, gray, or blue) and a white T-shirt with one of three birds (a cardinal, an oriole, or an owl) emblazoned on the front—jailbirds. This cruel irony had lingered for decades, but a year earlier Cook County excised an even crueler one by repainting the facility's ink-black exterior a snowy white. Three-quarters of our inmates were black; no longer were we a black jail full of black kids.
Reverend Henderson, black like most of them, frowned down at the middle of the boys. The first row was a couple of yards away from him. "Okay, son, you need to leave right now!"
Several minutes had passed, and Lamar must have closed his eyes again, although his head wasn't slumped forward or backward, so I couldn't tell whether or not he had nodded off.
Sighing, Lamar erected himself without another full glance of his craggy face my way to protest his second excommunication. I wanted to command Lamar back into his soft seat and remind Reverend Henderson that like his congregation member stated, he wasn't a compensated staff member and that I wielded final say in where juveniles sat and whether they slept. Lamar bolted from the TV Area, though, before I could redirect him. He slumped into a hard plastic chair at a table near Attendant Newton and the Console. Newton said nothing to Lamar, perhaps assuming that I had kicked him out for talking. Lamar plunged his face into folded arms.
I refocused on Reverend Henderson—the most formally dressed volunteer I'd ever spotted in the jail. I wondered if Henderson had orchestrated his black shoes reflecting the overhead fluorescent lights and the burgundy tie matching the handkerchief in his jacket breast pocket as part of his homily—the glossier his guise, the more inmates would believe what he said.
Aside from television and meals, a weekend sermon from Reverend Henderson was all Lamar and the other civilian-clothed 3A juveniles could anticipate. They could not take part in weekend Protestant and Catholic chapel services. Leaving the block only for court appearances and medical attention, Intakers missed more than church. No school. No recreation. Even bathroom breaks on 3A were scheduled for the whole group, not whenever a single juvenile requested as on the regular cellblocks. Whether or not they and their alleged crimes appeared in block-lettered Chicago Tribune headlines like some of the inmates I met, few juveniles spent more than a week on Intake, similar to Lamar whose judge probably had already evaluated the evidence against him, decreed it non-incriminating, and exonerated him. Thus caseworkers never transferred Lamar to a regular cellblock, and he was waiting for mom, dad, or legal guardian to claim him. If no one showed within seven days, caseworkers would designate Lamar to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. One Intake staff dubbed such limboed DCFS inmates: "wasted sperm" because "nobody wants them." So Reverend Henderson rarely encountered criticism like Lamar's—for preaching an identical sermon on two consecutive Sundays.
With Lamar anathematized, Reverend Henderson explained that no one paid him for his time with us, but thankfully last night his limousine fleet had cleared almost a thousand dollars. God's "blessing" thus freed his Sunday mornings "to teach you brothers the Word of God, so you can be obedient to God and live righteously and successfully. My father told me: ‘Son, you're killing time and pretty soon time will kill you.' Like many of you, I didn't listen to my father and mother. Now that I'm fifty-seven years old, I know what he meant. My body holds two bullets." From his Bible he drew yellowing folded papers—court notices and legal documents. Lifting them near eye-level, Reverend Henderson said he had been locked inside the facility ours had replaced twenty-five years earlier. Then he served hard time at adult jail and prisons. "The other day, I saw a man in a wheelchair trying to wheel himself up a hill in the cold and wind. I can't help but think that the man was being punished by God." Unless the Reverend resided in the far northern suburbs near Wisconsin, Chicago is hill-less. He added that his aunt lived in a mental health institution. "You don't want to be punished by God too." If 3A's inmates would "live righteously while still of sound mind and health," they could be spared God's fire and brimstone here on Earth.
No one in Henderson's congregation squirmed. God's punishment wasn't scaring anyone. Maybe they already felt justly punished in their young, sad lives. But Reverend Henderson's sermon stimulated me like smoky Sumatran coffee. If God flogged us down every time we strayed, dear Reverend Henderson, why weren't we all cramped into wheelchairs and atrophying away in psych wards? I glanced to the Common Area. Lamar's head still lay on the table by the Console. The TV Area inmates in front of me sank deeper into their seat cushions, staring past the six-foot man who went on: "Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." I heard Reverend Henderson's feet slide on the floor, reading Jesus's words from the black Bible. "Ask God to meet your needs, not your gang leader. Whatever you wanna be, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a carpenter, a businessman, a politician—ask God for it! Young men, I want you to be successful. God wants you to be successful! God wants you to be the lender, not the borrower. He wants you to be the landlord, not the tenant. We've got some future millionaires right here in this room!"
No kid budged. The idea of becoming a millionaire enthused no one. All idled spiritless, as Lamar had. They just weren't snoozing. I thought of our Behavior Management point system applied on the regular cellblocks—a myriad of interventions to quash misbehavior and elicit good behavior. Reverend Henderson's stimulus wasn't yielding the desired response in these boys, nor in me because I pondered lurching up and shouting: So Reverend, famished people in Angola shoo flies from their mucus-caked nostrils languishing in line for a bowl of high-protein gruel, and our fellow Chicagoans freeze themselves ashen on Lower Wacker Drive because voices warn them not to check into Pacific Garden Mission, but God wants the rest of us to summer in a Loire Valley chateaux? Saint Peter obviously forgot to ‘ask and seek and knock'! I doubt many denarii tumbled from his pockets when a crucifixion mob flipped him upside down!
Henderson solicited hands from boys "willing to give your life to Jesus and go to church" when released. Four threw up a palm, bowed their heads, and murmured through a recipe forgiveness prayer with him. As with the sermon, I heard nothing about the cross of Christ and the heavy cross he demanded that his followers live with on their raw, bleeding backs. Henderson's cross consisted of balsa wood—hollowed and stuffed with greenbacks, a cross he twirled like a cheerleader's baton.
He stepped toward the door and a couple of inmates asked me for permission to leave their seats. I excused them and they followed Reverend Henderson. I hoped my questions for the Reverend were their questions. In a low pitch, as if he didn't want Attendant Newton at the Console to hear their exchange, Henderson conversed with the boys near the glass wall separating our block from the hallway. Framed in the steel-lined glass door, he scribbled on a note pad, then pushed through the door and left. The door banged and Attendant Newton dismissed Lamar to the TV Area. The two questioners followed. The three found seats among the other juveniles stirring as the television fired back up. I'm sure they hoped to finish the movie before the food cart returned, knowing that after lunch we would shut off videos and turn on the National Football League. And if the Bears were playing a night game, it would be tomorrow morning before the boys could watch car chases and explosions again.
Another Sunday, I drew 3A but for the 2-10 shift. I arrived to see Reverend Henderson driving his entire congregation from the TV Area to the Common Area's meal table seats, where he'd banished Lamar. Maybe all the juveniles had dozed this time. Reverend Henderson usually waxed eloquent during traditional church hours. Perhaps a serendipitous hundred dollars whisking a dignitary to O'Hare Airport that morning proved too tempting. Each chair near the Console and Attendant Newton was fiberglass, coated with slick hard plastic—not nap-friendly like the sofas and various soft chairs in front of the television. The sermon cranked up and the message remained: God wants to bless you and make you rich. Lamar, the ‘wasted sperm,' was gone now, but correct. Reverend Henderson repeated himself.
I stood behind the Console to greet Attendant Newton and sign the logbook documenting my arrival. Soon, a rangy sixteen-year-old with cornrow hair braids tight to his head caught my eye in his lean forward, elevating his haunches off his seat. He chopped his arms at the air near his face, "My mom was off livin' with her boyfriend! My dad was never around! My brother was locked up! No one took care of me! I was all by my damn self! If I hadn't learned how to use a gun, I'd be a dead nigger right now! Where was God then?"
Reverend Henderson fell wordless and I wished he had relocated his pulpit sooner if that guaranteed challenges to his health-and-wealth agenda. The boy's question vexed me too and I was game for the Reverend's answer. Volunteering at the facility, I'd dreaded that very theological quandary and avoided reading my Bible study participants passages like: "He shall provide all your needs according to His riches and glory." What would I say to a kid demanding to know why God had permitted his mom to extension cord-switch him when he cried, and inject her arms with black tar heroin? How would I have established God as rich and glorious? After college and into grad school, it was reading Chicago's newspapers online about Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, about kids dropping kids from housing project windows, about all the kids who God was taking such poor care of and leaving all by their damn selves that inspired my return to Chicago's juvenile jail. God had forgotten this fatherless boy with the cornrows and pistol, but I wouldn't. And even when the flesh-and-blood reality of such a kid's life contradicted the Bible's certain dreamy assurances, and it was easier to conceive of God not being there after all, from the care and attention I would bless these troubled youth with, they would somehow believe in Him. They would believe that tomorrow had promise like I had at their age, when my life with two married selfless parents, home-cooked meals, and a big backyard with leafy oak trees and an in-ground pool was so plum that it was impossible for God not to exist.
"God is the same yesterday, today, and forever," Reverend Henderson answered. His hands cupped the open Bible. "Give God a chance." He closed the Bible, rotated, and strode past the Console, exiting the cellblock and never calling heads to bow for prayer.
Attendant Newton and I were still while the boys sat without moving for several seconds, until another kid complained about Henderson. Then Newton chimed, "Yeah, all the times I've seen him in here he's always talkin' about his limo and painting companies. But I've never seen him offer any of you guys jobs, or even bring in some job applications."
Down the back of Newton's neck and onto the collar of another Bears jersey snaked a pencil-sized single hair braid, tied with a rubber band. We idled for more silent seconds before he pointed at a couple of boys close to the Console. "Okay, you two right here, stand up." They did. "Head to the TV Area." They did. Then Attendant Newton dispatched the remainder, two at a time, back around the glass wall to sit in front of the screen.
I nodded at Newton. I had nothing to say. Then I stood up myself, trailed after the last two inmates, flipped on the television, and plunked down in the rear row. The angry boy's question about God, his mother, his father, and his gun had to wait. Maybe he would be stewing on 3A again next Sunday, and like Lamar, hear Reverend Henderson pontificate twice.
Title graphic: "Visitor" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.