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Students collect soap donations for incarcerated girls

The Starbucks located on the corner of Halsted Street and Webster Avenue is a daily stop for many Lincoln Park residents. Now, instead of waiting near a counter with sugar and cream, customers stand by a large cardboard box with a poster reading “Dove Soap Drive” across the front.

DePaul freshmen Jillian Muncaster and Amber Rosegay, who is a barista at the store, organized the drive in an effort to collect soap and other hygienic products for incarcerated girls at Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. It is one of the largest juvenile jails in the nation with a 350 bed capacity, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. They placed a second box in DePaul’s Lincoln Park Student Center and anxiously awaited donors’ contributions.

“My next work shift was two days later [after she set up the box], and I checked to see if there was anything in there,” Rosegay said. “At the bottom I saw a couple boxes of panty liners … I’ve never been so excited to see panty liners in my entire life.”

The project initially stemmed from a conversation between Muncaster and her professor, Heather Easley. After watching Muncaster collect menstrual products for The Grace House earlier this year, Easley wanted to connect her with Ryann Roberts, a public defender in Cook County.

Roberts worked closely with detained youth, between the ages of 18 to 21, awaiting trial in the center. She led a street law course for a group of young girls to educate them on their legal rights. As the class came to an end, she wanted to do something nice for them, like throw a pizza party. However, their only request was Dove soap bars.

“Once a youth is checked into the detention center, their belongings are taken from them,” Roberts said. “They get a jumpsuit, some underwear and a small bag that contains soap and a toothbrush and maybe a maxi pad. They’re expected to take care of all of their hygiene needs with that, and it’s simply not possible.”

The products provided to them from the center were of such low quality that the soap cakes caused the girls’ skin to crack. Roberts brought what she could during her visits, but the issue was too large for her to tackle on her own. As a senator for the Resident Hall Council, Muncaster decided to recruit some help from the social justice committee and start collections immediately.

The poor living conditions Roberts described did not come as much of a shock to Muncaster. She explained how her views of the criminal justice system in the US have always been negative. As a young girl growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, she recalled her first encounter with the police. They aggressively detained a family member right in front of her.

“From that day, I knew this wasn’t an institution or system that sat right with me,” Muncaster said. “Now I see that on a larger scale, and I think the pandemic brought many of Cook County inmates’ terrible living conditions to the forefront. Everything about the system during that time was inhumane.”

In April of 2o2o, Cook County Jail became the nation’s largest known source of Covid-19 infections, causing health officials to question their isolation methods. Though reports of poor conditions at the prison date back to 2008 when a federal investigation found that people awaiting trial endured inadequate medical care and physical abuse from workers.

Reports of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center breaking state rules regarding youth’s time in room confinement surfaced in 2018. Staff had been regularly confining inmates in their cells for over 36 hours, according to The Chicago Reporter.

For Rosegay, a recent experience with Midwest Books to Prisoner, a nonprofit that distributes free reading material to incarcerated people, inspired her to help tackle this issue. She visited local inmates with her cousin and learned more about their living situations. One man described his cellmate as being completely covered in lice and bugs.

“It was just horrible,” she said. “I know some people may argue that these people are getting detained for a reason, but I believe their living conditions should still be humane.”

Roberts works directly with the center’s social worker and donation coordinator to ensure all of the collected items are properly distributed to the youth inmates.

“It’s more than just a bar of soap — for a youth who is detained, who doesn’t have anyone on the outside advocating for them, it connects them to the outside world,” Roberts said. “It reminds them that someone out there still cares about them. And you never know, these simple acts and connections with people can be truly life-changing.”

Toiletries and hygiene products can be placed in the donation box at Starbucks for the remainder of the spring quarter. Please email Muncaster at [email protected] with questions regarding product restrictions or to plan a drop off on-campus. (Contact: [email protected]) (Starbucks Address: 2200 N. Halsted St.)

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