LITTLE VILLAGE — As a kid growing up in Little Village, Benny Hernandez never really thought about the Cook County Jail.
"It's strange," the 39-year-old construction manager said. "You sort of just put it outside your train of thought — unless someone would escape and you'd see the helicopters circling the neighborhood. That's when you'd remember: Oh yeah, I live right next to the jail."
For Logan Square native Javier Pereira, 47, that same facility is never far from his mind.
"I was incarcerated there several times. The last time I was there, I was a resident for 27 months," the substance-abuse counselor said. "It was horrible. I mean, the treatment of the inmates was just very inhumane. It was very loud, very dirty. The food was less than desirable. The staff [can be] abusive verbally and it can also escalate physically."
Cook County Jail at 2700 S. California Ave. is the largest single-site jail in the United States. It houses roughly 9,000 inmates on any given day and takes up 96 acres of land in the middle of the Little Village neighborhood.
Hernandez and Pereira shared stories and perspectives Saturday at "PARK," a public art installation hosted by 96 Acres, which backs large-scale arts projects near the jail.
The group's goal was to park 100 cars — 67 black, 19 brown and 14 white — along the Cook County Jail property to proportionally represent the racial breakdown of inmates. Each car would blast a Vocalo broadcast featuring inmate stories and a rare B.B. King recording from a 1970 performance inside the jail.
But only 40 cars were used Saturday since the organizers' call for public participation didn't yield as many vehicles as they had hoped. The project was scaled to size.
Maria Gaspar, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who helped organize the event, said it was powerful nonetheless.
She described walking down the street and listening to the Vocalo broadcast, which was played loudly in each car and projected through open windows. Joining Gaspar were Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, former mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and jail warden Nneka Jones Tapia.
"Hearing people talk about their jail experience [in the broadcast] in all the cars ... it's almost like they're coming out of the jail in a way," Gaspar said. "There's something so beautiful and powerful and sad and kind of heart-wrenching about that. So I loved that moment, that was the most powerful for me."
Pereira, who donated his white Dodge Charger to the project, had his own story to tell Saturday. The recovering addict said his drug addiction landed him in the jail several times on robbery and attempted-robbery charges — anything to maintain the high.
He painted a bleak picture of life inside. While the jail provided church services and access "to the yard or the gym whenever they have that available," Pereira said, there weren't many educational opportunities.
And that's "important so you can stop the revolving door, in and out, in and out," he said. "If they don't give the inmates something to help them once they're released, then all they do is the same thing they used to do, which is sell drugs or commit crimes."
After his most recent stint — 27 months awaiting trial and sentencing in a robbery case — Pereira "decided I didn't want to go through this anymore," he said. He sought help, became a certified drug counselor and will soon complete a bachelor's degree.
But for others, he said, "it's sad. There's nothing to look forward to once you get out. There's no opportunities to educate yourself, so a person leaves the same way they came in. They haven't learned anything different. They call it a 'correctional facility' but they're not correcting anything. They're glorified babysitters. All they're doing is housing."
Hernandez, who grew up in Little Village and still lives in the neighborhood, said he knows projects like "PARK" aren't going to cause substantial changes.
"The fact that we're having this dialogue, I think, is enough," he said. "I guess it's a necessary evil to have this jail here, but that doesn't mean we can't strive to make it a little better for the community and inmates as well."
Ninthe Serrano (from l.), Maria Gaspar, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle chat at the PaRK public art installation Saturday. [DNAinfo/Erica Demarest]
Resident Ninthe Serrano, whose front yard faces the jail, said "PARK" led to something very cool for locals: her street's first block party.
Since Serrano's stretch of Sacramento Avenue lines up with the jail, permits to barricade the block and host a small party have been routinely denied, she said. Some residents have lived on the street for 20 years and never had a neighborhood get-together.
"They were telling me: It's never going to happen, they're never going to close the street," said Serrano, who's lived in Chicago most of her life. "Block parties were a big thing [for me, growing up]. Every kid looked forward to it all summer, and they've never had one here."
As "PARK" wrapped up Saturday night, she and several neighbors brought outside water balloons and games.
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