success stories

Posted August 28, 2003

The Success Story of Brother James Van Dyke, C.S.C

Brother James Van Dyke spends a lot of time in jail, and other brothers think he belongs there. Since 1986, Brother James has worked in the criminal justice system as an attorney, an administrator of a court services department, and as a combination chaplain, counselor, program developer and advocate. Currently employed by the Correctional Services Department of The Salvation Army in Chicago, Brother James has a flexible job description: to assess the needs of incarcerated men and women, their families, and the criminal court system, and to devise ways of meeting needs.

Brother James finds inspiration for his work in Romans 12: 2, which reads, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” As a Brother of Holy Cross, he offers not just human services that might improve lives, but the possibility of transformation leading to perfection in and through Christ. All people stand in need of this transformation; those in the criminal justice system simply reveal the need in more obvious ways.

Brother James spends much of his time in and around Cook County (IL) jail, which houses approximately 11,000 detainees on any given day. Another weekly stop is Stateville-Penitentiary, a maximum security facility about 40 miles from Chicago. Other jails and prisons in northern Illinois are visited on a less regular basis. Brother James gains initial access to these institutions through his status as a chaplain, providing such traditional services as leading prayer and bible study groups, offering spiritual counseling, and helping to deal with issues (such as family problems) reaching beyond prison walls. He also acts as pen pal to a few dozen inmates who request that type of contact.

While spirituality might motivate and fuel inmates’ efforts to change their lives, they also need practical skills and help in changing attitudes and behaviors. Incarcerated men and women are more likely than others to have educational deficiencies and substance abuse issues. Working with a multi-disciplinary team, Brother James serves as an administrator and teacher in the Life Learning Program (LLP) at the county jail. The LLP provides spiritual, educational, and life skills classes, as well as self-help and substance abuse recovery groups, to voluntary participants in the five-month program. Graduates can continue into a second phase, for which brother currently is designing programming. The LLP serves as a model for the collaborative effort that makes possible a more complete and cohesive program than any one agency or service group can provide on its own.

When not working with incarcerated people, Brother James offers services related to those approaching sentencing, such as proposing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. His experience in having designed and implemented Cook County’s Drug Treatment Courts, which combine judicial sanctions with mandated treatment, provides a perspective from which he proposes sentences that protect public safety while addressing problems underlying criminal behavior. Such alternatives sentences are less costly and more effective than incarceration. Brother also serves on a committee bringing together legal, medical, law enforcement and mental health professionals to address family and domestic violence. A number of times yearly Brother James addresses training sessions and conventions of professional groups regarding needs and trends within the criminal justice system.

A developing part of brother’s ministry is creating services for people being released from jail or prison. Many Americans are aware that the prison population now numbers more than two million people; fewer realize that thousands are released each year and need to be reintegrated into society or else risk re-offending (at rates as high as 60% for some age groups). Brother James is working with others to juggle scarce resources to supply job placement and housing, critical needs for people starting fresh, particularly if they must distance themselves from past environments and lifestyles. In a related vein, brother is creating a support group through reintegration.

Romans 12, quoted above, goes on to say in verse 5, . . .we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” This simple truth underlies Brother James’s ministry. The Body of Christ embraces all, on both sides of a prison wall.