Nneka Jones Tapia, Cook County Jail warden, raised Catholic, then Baptist, now finds God at home, through her Bible and among the cell blocks.
“I’m from a small town in North Carolina, and I had never been to Chicago.”
Was “attracted to coming here — I believe it was God.”
A clinical psychologist, interned at the Cook County Jail, run by Sheriff Tom Dart, starting in 2006. Appointed warden in 2015 — the first mental health professional to run the bleak, sprawling complex, where roughly a third of those detained have some mental health condition.
“I hear a lot of law enforcement staff . . . say they didn’t sign up to be mental health staff. Well, I didn’t sign up to be in law enforcement, but the two have found their way to each other.”
Tapia’s friends’ and family’s interactions with the criminal justice system when she was young “influenced my path.”
Her dad was arrested for drugs and sent to prison.
“I developed this desire to just want to help people who were incarcerated and their families because I knew what that felt like.”
What did it feel like?
“Not knowing what’s happening with your loved one who is behind this dreaded wall, and you don’t understand what is occurring. You’re lost.”
Attributes her career success in large part to her parents, “even though we had a very difficult upbringing . . . I remember having Sunday dinners — this was when prisons were much different, you could take food in to them.” Her mom would spend Saturday cooking, then they’d take picnic baskets to visit her father.
Raised Catholic, “we went to church every Sunday, my mom, my sister and I. I went to my catechism classes, and we just had a wonderful church family. But I also recognized I had different portrayals of spirituality in my home than what I think many young African-American, in particular, children experience.”
Walking in to her childhood home, there was “a large picture of Jesus, and he was black” with “long, flowing, gray hair.”
“For me, it showed . . . that God was in me despite all of these things going on around me. I knew that I was His child.
“My dad was adamant that his children were going to grow up with figures that looked like them, from our Barbie dolls to our toys to our picture of Jesus.”
Mass could be boring, but she liked her family’s routine of going out to eat at McDonald’s after.
In college, started to develop “my own sense of spirituality. That’s when I started to explore and . . . going to more Southern Baptist churches . . . just to experience what others felt. And I remember being moved the first time I went to a Baptist church and heard the choir sing.”
She was baptized and spent several years in that tradition, eventually moving on, not attending services much, but digging into the Bible on her own.
“I had more resonate with me when it was just me and God in the room.
“I started out not understanding what I was reading. It was very difficult . . . Then, it just grew on me.”
“Today, every day, I read my Bible in the morning, and I say prayers for me, my family and for our community. That’s my ritual every morning, and that helps ground me. It helps me start my day on a positive note, which you can imagine is pretty difficult. So, if only for 15 minutes in my day, it’s me and God, still, at my house.
“I have a corner at my house that I have a vision board, and I have a nice prayer that I say and my Bible and my candle.”
Did faith drive her into this field?
“It is more rooted in a commitment to my community. I see so many black and brown children, really they’re children, come in and out of correctional institutions. And Cook County is no different. And I know we need to do something different to help them. They are hurting, and I just have this unyielding commitment to wanting to make life better for them.”
“I think it’s multifaceted, it’s spiritual, it’s hearing my dad in my ear saying we come from kings and queens, and that’s how we should project ourselves,” and also her mom’s work as a nurse.
Tapia’s first name means “mother supreme” in Igbo, an African language.
“I was very fortunate to have the outcome in my life that I had and so many people don’t.”
“I think God is all around us,” including at the jail.
“I have pictures on my phone, and one of them is of a man. He is first coming into custody, and he’s behind a wired fence . . . a holding area. Older, white man. His face is down, his cane is hanging up on the wire, and he just looks like he has no hope, no sense of a desire to want to go on.”
Another photo, though, shows inmates “in their brown Department of Corrections uniforms playing drums, smiling. To me, that’s God — to take someone” from such a low point and “transitioning them to that smile.”
There are “hundreds of religious volunteers that come in to the jail and offer an array of spiritual services” to detainees, including Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Some inmates participate in religious services at the jail simply to “get out of the tier” for a while, but often “they even get something out of it.”
Faith can be transformative for inmates. “I also believe it depends on” if they’re “ready to make a change.”
There are 10 divisions at the 90-acre-plus jail site and a half-dozen non-denominational chapels.
“Oftentimes, when you walk by a cell, you’ll see Bibles in the window sill.”
Bibles, Korans and Muslim prayer rugs are donated, and special food is available for those with religious dietary restrictions. “We do have kosher meals.”
Of the 7,500 or so inmates, “I would say about . . . 30 percent” attend “a religious service at some point during the week.
“There are some that just aren’t interested, and that’s OK as well.”
A favorite Bible passage is about Joshua and his army “marching around Jericho . . . and God spoke to him and kept telling him, ‘Keep going,’ and finally the city just fell to him. And so that’s inspiring to me because so many days you feel like you’re not making headway . . . a difference,” but eventually you do.
Another favorite story has Jesus “amongst those . . . deemed criminals,” and there were those worried, saying something to the effect of, “You shouldn’t go, you shouldn’t go,” but Christ said, “I’m OK.”
“My family worries about me, people that don’t even know me. . . . To those people, I say, ‘I’m OK, this is what I was supposed to do.’ . . . I was destined to be where I am now.”
Used to think of heaven as “above the clouds . . . Now, I see heaven on earth . . . I believe that each of our heavens look different. For me, my heaven is when I get home and I see my husband,” who works at the jail as a correctional officer, “and I get to talk to my stepsons.”
Is the jail — a place teeming with people, awaiting trial, often accused of horrific crimes like murder and rape — a version of hell?
“While no one wants to go there by any means, I’m sure, I don’t see it as horrendous. I see it as a place that can be used for someone’s benefit, if they allow it.”
“We, in the free society, we don’t often times get an opportunity to quiet our world and to really think about what steps we need to take to have the best life,” something they can do in the jail.
“I try not to let the job infiltrate me, but I try to put myself into the job, but there are those moments and those people that just hit you in your core, and I pray for those people.”
Enlists St. Jude, patron of “hopeless cases,” in her prayer routine.
Redemption is a central element of Christianity. Does everybody in jail deserve forgiveness?
“I don’t believe that’s for me to say.”
With violent crimes, “there are victims . . . If that were my loved one . . . it would be difficult for me to forgive, in all honesty. But that’s not my role.”
For those in jail, “their walk is their walk, and I believe that we all have . . . consequences of the decisions that we make.”
Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.
Listen to previous “Face to Faith” podcasts:
- Sox outfielder Melky Cabrera: ‘Let it be God’s will if we lose or win,’ June 25, 2017
- The Mekons’ Sally Timms: ‘Not the kind of atheist who’s down on religion,’ June 18, 2017
- J.B. Pritzker: At times, ‘your faith has to overcome maybe logic,’ June 11, 2017
- Daoud Casewit, American Islamic College president: ‘We’re as American as we are Islamic,’ June 4, 2017
- Public Defender Amy Campanelli: My clients ‘are not evil people,’ May 28, 2017
- James Lovell: ‘We go to heaven when we’re born,’ May 21, 2017
- Michael Magnafichi, one-time ‘rising star’ in Chicago mob: ‘I do say prayers,’ May 14, 2017
- Ald. Ameya Pawar: ‘There’s always the opportunity for redemption,’ May 7, 2017
- Sir the Baptist: ‘I want to be the first hip-hop chaplain,’ April 30, 2017
- Singer Shemekia Copeland: ‘Hell, yeah’ God loves the blues, April 23, 2017