Trudging up the staircase to the county jail, Rhonda Brown fretted for a family member locked inside. She wondered who might see her there. She didn't know what to do, or how to begin.
"I was in a flood of horrible emotions," Brown said. "I felt so out of place. Part of it is the humiliation of even being there. I remember looking around and seeing the other faces in the waiting room. I got the feeling that a lot of them were thinking the same things."
Brown decided there had to be a better way to visit a jail.
As a social worker and the healthy communities specialist for St. Joseph's Hospital in Chippewa Falls, a city of 13,800 in northwest Wisconsin, she had the skills and the connections to help make jail visits less traumatic.
In 2009, shortly after her relative was arrested, Brown spoke with administrators at the Chippewa County Jail about the disorientation she felt as a visitor. Even through the emotional upset of her first visit, she had noted that many people were asking the same questions as they took turns speaking to the jailers. She was distressed to see visitors turned away after lengthy waits because they couldn't produce picture IDs, one of the jail's requirements for visitation.
"I remember thinking, 'How can we make this easier?' It certainly was incredibly hard for me," she said.
Brown spoke to her boss Lois Klay, an assistant administrator at St. Joseph's, about what she saw as an opportunity to help soften the burden of wounded families and show Christlike concern to jailed offenders.
Klay suggested Brown start a jail outreach through the Chippewa Health Improvement Partnership, a community health initiative that has programs in wellness, underage drinking and health education, among other areas. Brown has managed the Improvement Partnership since joining St. Joseph's 11 years ago.
Klay said the jail project fits into St. Joseph's mission of helping people in need. "It's the same thing that brought the (Franciscan) sisters here in 1885. Rhonda turned a personal experience into a community vision."
With the hospital's backing, Brown took it from there, assembling a six-person committee to advise the Jail Project. She recruited Colleen Connell, program director at the jail, to the committee.
Brown and Connell worked up a list of ways to help visitors.
Together, they prepared instructions for the uninitiated, and Connell posted the information sheet outside the waiting room. It covers practical things such as who can visit and for how long, how to register and even what kind of underwear a visitor can bring for an inmate.
Brown arranged for an information rack to provide topical reading material for visitors to peruse while they wait. Local social welfare and public health agencies provide brochures.
Connell credits Brown for a persistence born of faith that people can turn their lives around. "I think she had a lot of guts to do this work, and I think she cares deeply for others experiencing difficult situations," Connell said. "She has a philosophy that lost souls don't have to remain lost."
Brown also appealed to members of the hospital's Leadership Academy, a group consisting of managers from St. Joseph's in Chippewa Falls and Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wis., 15 miles to the southwest. (The two hospitals make up the western division of the Hospital Sisters Health System, for which Brown also serves as regional director of community health development.)
The Leadership Academy began a collection drive for books and games for the jail library. The project also donates library materials to the jail in adjacent Eau Claire County. Brown said academy members embrace the project because it is "consistent with the hospitals' efforts to connect with their communities at a grassroots level."
Connell said inmates are grateful for the expanded library. "Inmates do like to read. The staff appreciates the donations because the books and games give the inmates something to do. Idle hands do the devil's work, and if the inmates have nothing to do, they'll find something to do — and it often won't be good," she said.
When they wrote letters to inmates for one of their community service projects, Leadership Academy participants got back proof that the hospitals' outreach boosted some inmates' sense of self-worth and dignity. Brown said 22 inmates responded with notes of thanks for the compassion expressed in the letters.
One note says in part, "It's nice to know that the community thinks of us as people and not as trash." Another says, "Thanks a million, and God bless each and every one of you."
Connell said the Jail Project committee wants to expand its efforts with training sessions on health and other subjects inside the jail.
"If our task is to help the most vulnerable, then this is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing," Brown said. She still makes deliveries to several jails in the region when her trunk fills up with donations of books, magazines, games and CDs.
And her relative? "He is getting the help he needs and is thankfully doing great," she said.
Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association
of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby
or call (314) 253-3477.