Volunteering at Cook County Jail for 16 years opened Christie Billups’ eyes to the humanity behind the walls.
She now brings that knowledge to her students.
Billups is associate professor of theology at Lewis University in Romeoville, as well as the co-founder and co-director of the university’s peace and justice studies program.
Earlier this year, as part of her Practicing Faithful Justice class, Billups invited six formerly incarcerated people into her classroom to share their stories.
Billups said she had three reasons for inviting formerly incarcerated people to speak: to stress the humanity of those who are incarcerated, to bring awareness to an ineffective prison system and how systemic racism plays a role, and to encourage participation in the civic process.
“It really helps to dismantle the idea that people who are incarcerated are monsters, that they are somehow less human than we are,” Billups said. “It really just reshapes the narrative. They get to hear the stories straight from the inside. It reconnects the humanity to the human.”
Billups said she started the class in 2009 and offered it once a year and then expanded it to every semester when it became part of Lewis’ peace and social justice studies curriculum.
The class helped to “contribute to the awareness of the realities of incarcerated people,” Billups said.
To that end, Billups’ students also correspond with “people who are inside,” Billups said. These people, who are vetted, have the opportunity each semester to share their stories about life on the inside, she said.
People who are incarcerated are often demonized, Billups said. Yes, Billups feels that crime is harmful. But crime is more than just breaking a law, she feels.
“Crime harms people, including the person who does the crime,” Billups said. “And so we recognize the victims are, of course, deeply harmed. The communities are harmed. The families are harmed. So how do we heal the harm that has been done?”
Billups feels the system often adds to the harm. It doesn’t make communities safer or provides rehabilitation to those involved.
“It actually re-traumatizes and further damages people rather than bringing healing after the harm is done,” Billups said.
So part of Billups’ goal in the correspondence between students and incarcerated people is to recognize “the concentric circles of harm” that happens when “people hurt other people” and to recognize that “those who do crimes are often hurt people themselves.”
Billups said a young person who commits crimes sometimes “ages out” of making bad choices.
“People change,” Billups said. “People can be redeemed. People are often beautiful underneath the wrong action if we look the right way.”
Billups doesn’t feel people are inherently “bad.” But she believes jails and prisons are filled with “wounded, broken people.”
“I can’t emphasize enough that we are a Catholic University,” Billups said. “I’m teaching theology. We’re talking about the worth and dignity of every human being. That’s not a small thing to me.”
Billups said she also wants students to realize the current justice system is broken and that she wants to show her students that they, as registered voters, “have a voice in the civic proves.” To that end, Billups also encourages her students to write letters to their representatives.
After they leave Billups’ class, some of her students stay connected with the people to whom they’ve written. Some bond over their love of baseball or jazz. Others share bits of their lives as they marry and have children. Some go to visit.
For some who are incarcerated, these connections are their first experiences with love. Many know exploitation, she said, but not love.
Billups said keeping people on the inside connected with people on the outside facilitates healing.
“It helps them feel seen and valued and loved,” Billups said. “I think love is the greatest healer of all.”
Jennie Schutter Amato, an attorney for 25 years and chief of professional development at the Kane County Public Defender’s Office, said she speaks to Billups’ class twice a year, at the beginning of each semester, to give students an overview of the criminal justice system from arrest to incarceration.
Amato said she also discusses the racial injustices and systemic racism that is present in the system, along with thoughts on how to effect change. She mato also praised the pen pal aspect that’s part of the class.
“And I just think it is interesting for students to hear about the person that is incarcerated,” Amata said. “And it brings the situation closer to home that these are real people. I’m not naïve. I know that crimes happens, But not every crime needs punishment. Having restorative justice benefits the community as a while.”
Julie Anderson, the outreach director for Restore Justice Illinois, has also spoken to Billups’ class. Restore Justice Illinois “advocates for fairness, humanity, and compassion throughout the Illinois criminal justice system,” according to its website.
Anderson said four of the 10-member staff at Restore Justice Illinois were formerly incarcerated. Anderson’s own son was sentenced to life in prison when he was 15, she said. He’s now 45.
She said that many people, after 20 years in prison, are able to be rehabilitated. Some of them are simply, “kids who screwed up and made really horrible mistakes.”
“I try to bring a face to that,” Anderson said.
Jacques “Jacob” Rivera, 67, of Park Ridge, said he has spoken to Billups’ class twice. Rivera said was sentence to 85 years for a murder Rivera said he did not commit. He was out of appeals when the person who identified him as the shooter in 1988 came forward and said Rivera wasn’t the killer, Rivera said.
Rivera said he was 25 when he went into prison and 45 when he was exonerated in 2011. He enjoys sharing his story to inform people about “what’s going in our judicial situation” and he’s free of bitterness and regret because he always knew the truth would come out, Rivera said.
For prison, Rivera said, because “a place of salvation for me.” Without prison, Rivera is convinced he’d be dead today because he was heavily into gangs and dealing drugs, he said. Rivera said God used the prison system “to wake me up.”
“My father died when I was young. I had no good upbringing,” Rivera said. “Even when my dad was alive, he did his best to raise us right. My father was a heroin addict. My mother was alcoholic. She drank to escape his abuse. I wasn’t brought up in a solid household,. And by him dying when he was young, I had no structure in my life.”
The Humble Park area of Chicago, where Rivera grew up, was “infested” with gangs and drugs at the time, he said.
“These gangs don’t tell you the truth,” Rivera said. “They use young kids like me to become involved in gangs and hold their guns. They tell you they love you, will die for you, and none of that is true. In my life, I was just looking for some type of stability and some type of truth. My father always lied to me. My mother always lied to me. And it just wasn’t easy for a man like me growing up in that type of environment.”
In prison, Rivera became close to God and began ministering to other prisoners, especially young, gang members whose gangs had abandoned them even as they learned that rival gangs became “buddy-buddy” behind the prison walls, Rivera said.
Rivera said he tells Billups’ students how he rejected a plea deal because he couldn’t live with the lie of admitting to murder. He then quoted Mark 8:36 from the Bible: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
That’s why Rivera said he doesn’t waste his time in bitterness and unforgiveness.
“They took enough of my time,” Rivera said. “I’m not going to give them any more of my time.”