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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Father Dave Kelly, C.PP.S.

Gordon: You have been involved with Chicago prisoners for more than thirty year as a prison chaplain at Cook County Jail  and  Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center as well at Kolbe House since 1985   You also serve as executive director of The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation  There are many challenges in our prison and judicial systems and we are beginning to see some interest in Congress on shorter prison terms for drug felons and eliminates the “three  strikes” rule mandating life sentences. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin  pointed out “The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than other country on Earth,”. What specific changes would your want prioritized in our juvenile crime sentencing and in our juvenile prison system?      


Father Dave: I think it will take more than just some changes.  I think the whole juvenile system has to be transformed.  At the heart of that transformation is the shift from a punitive system to a system that sees crime as a public health issue, a system that works toward preparing our youth to reenter the community with the resources necessary. This is especially true for juveniles.  

The juvenile justice system needs embrace a restorative justice philosophy and understand the impact of trauma on our youth.  Understanding, as well, brain development is imperative to a substantial change in juvenile sentencing. 

Gordon: What are the most common offenses got which juveniles are detained and sentenced?

Father Dave: Today, in Cook County, drug case are probably still the most common.  There seems to be an increase, too, in theft and robbery cases.  For the most part this is symptomatic of the lack of opportunities/jobs and that youth feel disconnected from their community.   

Another issue is the availability of guns.  Something that needs to be understood is:

1.  Youth in our community feel vulnerable.  They all know someone who has been killed – uncle, father, brother, cousin or friend.  2.  They know the community can be dangerous.  It can be dangerous to walk from school to the park.  They are constantly “watching their back”.  3.  They feel that adults will not protect them.  They truly feel they have to take care of themselves.  Put all that together with the easy availability of guns, and you      have a real problem.    

Gordon: There are many parts of our country and some states like Michigan that use our prisons to house people with mental health challenges. Cook County  Sherriff Thomas J. Dart has also brought this challenge to public attention.  Have you been aware of this challenge in the people that you work with, and, do you have any recommendations in improving mental health services in Cook County Jail and Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention?

Father Dave: Without a doubt mental health is one of the issues that we deal with both inside the detention center or jail and in the community.      

The lack of resources is a critical level.  Obviously, when you have no resources in the community, mental health issues are dealt with as though it is criminal behavior, and that floods our jails and detention centers with cases that ought to be dealt with as mental health issues.  The lack of resources inside detention exacerbates the problem. 

Communities and families have no resources in which to help youth and families deal with the incredible stress, strain, and trauma that our families and youth have to live with “Hurt people hurt people” (Dr. Carl Bell) and until we begin to deal with the deep trauma in the lives of our young people, violence will continue.

Gordon: What recommendations would you make to reduce crime in some of our neighborhoods with a high violence rate.

Father Dave: My recommendation is to deal with the root of the problem, which is trauma, isolation and lack of purpose or meaning in the lives of so many.  The response has to be varied.  One of the areas that some of us in the restorative justice community are working on is “Community Restorative Justice Hubs” as a means to reach out to and accompany those young people and their families that are court involved or in gangs, etc.   

There are five pillars to the Community RJ Hub:

1.  Welcome and Hospitality – radical hospitality.  Young people who carry trauma don’t always present themselves with openness and willing to be received well.  You have to reach out to them and create a space where they feel a sense of belonging and welcome. 

2. Accompaniment – which is the commitment to walking alongside them in order to help them access the resources they may need.  This is all about relationship and commitment to the person. 

3. Relentless engagement of youth and families – this is reaching out to youth and families at whatever place they may be at.  You cannot wait for the youth to come around to our programs or attitudes.  You have to build relationships with them no matter where they are at in life.  If there is a kid on the street who is selling drugs, I still need to be in relationship with him.  I don’t have to agree with what he is doing in order to be in relationship. 

4. Relentless engagement of stakeholders – we cannot do this alone.  We must build a network (web) of connections in order to build a healthy community.  I have to be in relationship with schools, organizations, churches, government, etc in order to best support the youth and families in our community. 

5. Collaboration – working together with other Community RJ Hubs to better advocate for policy change, support, training, etc 

Gordon: What role has gang involvement had in our younger prisoners?

Father Dave: Gangs are symptomatic of what we are not providing our youth.  If they are disconnected from community, family – they will form their own support system.  Gangs are no more than youth peer groups – wounded – and they act out of their trauma/woundedness.   

There is no doubt that gangs still pose a problem, but it is not how it was years ago.  There is little to no structure.  The biggest issues is no longer between rival gangs, but interpersonal problems happening between peoples/groups.  Most gang violence is within the same gang.   

However, in an institution that is built on punishment and isolation, gang lines are strengthened – us against them – and the gang is reinforced. 

Gordon: Do younger people released from prison have a more or less difficult time seeking employment upon their release? 

Father Dave: The singular most common question I am asked is, “Father, can you help me get a job.”  There are few jobs; youth are not job ready – they have never had anyone teach them what it means to be an employee.  They carry trauma and anger.  As a society, we need to have mentoring at every level – community, family, workplace, etc. 

In addition they are not prepared when they leave the jail/prison/detention center.  They do not have their documents in order.  We spend an inordinate amount of time helping a person get his state ID, etc upon release.  It seems to me that if we are locking someone up, we should no exactly who we have.  Why not allow them to leave with documents.

Gordon:  If younger people could have access to specific job training such as in Internet technology upon release, would they, in your opinion, have a better opportunity for employment than with the skills they current have? Father Dave:

Young people need to be listened to and resources need to be made available as the young person is heard.  Not everyone is interested in internet technology.  We have youth who are interested in construction or college or welding.  They greatest need is to have a place where young people can have a caring adult in their live.  That caring adult can walk with the young person and support them in accessing resources, etc.   

Gordon: Can you give our readers some examples of hour your prison ministry may have helped reduce the recidivism?

Father Dave: I really don’t consider recidivism a measure of how well a young person is doing.  Recidivism is more a result of policing – strategies, etc.  No doubt some of it is whether the young person is or is not engaged in criminal activity, but not the greater portion.   

That being said, we strive to help a youth/family connect with others and feel as though they are a part of the community.  When you feel as though you belong, then you become a co-creator.  The biggest effort  in our ministry is building healthy relationships with youth and families – and then try help them access the support that they need.  Often times that support comes in the form of mental health, employment, education, etc.

Gordon: What roles have and should Catholic parishes have in helping their former parishioners released from the prison system find employment and   become reintegrated in their communities?

Father Dave: Catholic parishes need to open their doors wide to this population.  The vast majority of people who are locked up are not connected to church – they don’t feel welcome.  Churches need to go out and build relationships with the individual/family. 

Gordon: What Impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had upon your ministry?

Father Dave: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to re-think how we serve our families, youth, and community. It has not lessened our commitment but calls us to find different ways to reach out and support those whom we are honored to walk with during these challenging times. These are uncertain times, but they are not times to retreat, rather they reinforce our commitment to stay connected and build community. 

Gordon: The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation is an exceptionally innovative organization that addresses many important challenges that the incarcerated and their families face I hope that our readers will review each of your ministries. Your ministry for Mothers of the Incarcerated is especially powerful.

I hope that some will also read some of the back issue of and subscribe to Making Choices which is an exceptional publication as well as making a donation to The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation 

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