For the young men I visit in Illinois adult prisons, the struggle most often spoken about during my 90 trips in 2015 and 2016 was their disconnection, separation, and detachment from family.  I call it the loneliness of the long distance inmates of Chicagoland. That loneliness leads to stress, anxiety, worry, depression and anger.  Without that loving, supportive lifeline back home, their re-entry into society becomes that much harder.

The separation starts with distance.  17 of the 22 correctional centers in Illinois are over 3 hours from Chicago, with most being 4, 5, 6, and even 7 hours away.  For 22 year old Dez,  incarcerated at Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro 4 hours from Chicago, he has had no family visits in the 4 years he’s been locked up.  His Mom has no car, can’t afford to open an inmate telephone account, and my attempts to call her after I’ve finished my quarterly visit with Dez go unanswered.  Dez is very frustrated, and does not understand the lack of contact from his family.

Jose, 18, is housed at Shawnee Correctional Center, near the Kentucky border, 7 hours from Chicago.  His Mom has a car, but it’s not reliable enough to make the long trip.  Even if the car could get her there, she couldn’t make the roundtrip in one day, and couldn’t afford a hotel room to stay over.  Like Dez, his Mom also can’t afford a phone account.   Although she has written Jose, he wants to hear her voice and hug her in person.  Jose views himself as the “man” of the family, so he is constantly worried about his younger siblings.  While he appreciates my quarterly visits, I’m no substitute for family.

To Juan, I am his family.  He lists my relationship to him as Uncle. He’s had only 2 family visits in his 7 years of incarceration.  He’s “only” 3.5 hours away in Danvile on the Indiana border, but his Mom is too sick to travel, and his sister moved to Florida.  He is really angry at her, because she promised that when she returned to Chicago to visit her Mom, she’d make time to visit Juan.  She’s been back twice, but did not visit.

Stressed out is how I’d describe Sammy, incarcerated at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg.  No one in his family has visited, yet he recently heard that his Mom visited his brother in California.  What about him, he worries?

Everytime I bring the subject of family up with Allen, he gets angry.  For awhile, he completely wrote off his mother and brother as “dead to him.” His father was faithful about visiting him for years, but during my last two quarterly visits, Allen said that he hadn’t heard or seen from his father since Christmas. Allen tries to block the hurt out of his mind, with no success.

Lonny is only 19, and was sentenced last year to 38 years.  He’s serving his time at Menard, one of Illinois’ three maximum security prisons, 6.5 hours from Chicago. So far, his Mom hasn’t been able to visit, but she is looking forward to joining other families who will be making their annual bus trip to Menard, sponsored by Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children (CRIC), a partnering agency with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.  Larry can’t wait.  He misses his Mom so much.

There are many more stories I could tell, all with the same theme.  My purpose in relating them is not to  judge these families.  They’re not responsible for the location of these facilities.  Most are poor, and many lead very complicated lives of their own back home.  I might add that there are many families that do make the effort and have the resources to visit as often as possible.

Added to the many other hardships these young men endure daily while in prison,  you’ve got a recipe for many mental health issues, especially depression.  I thank God for the opportunity to visit these young men, listen to their stories, and work for healing and reconciliation in the midst of their loneliness and isolation.