Hasan Hakeem walks the hall inside the Kenosha County Detention Center with an even gait, the keys to various rooms jingling at his side as he reaches a multipurpose room door to unlock it.

The room sports a narrow window, offering a glimpse into an empty pod where inmates sleep, interact, and are confined. The inmates have begun their daily routine of lining up in shifts in the hall, preparing to eat their last meal of the day.

Hakeem, 60, of Waukegan, Ill., and the county’s first Muslim chaplain, waits to wave at a corrections officer at the end of the line, respectful of the delicate balance of power that exists between jailer and inmate.

Hired full-time four months ago replacing longtime chaplain Sister Virginia Reichard, a Catholic nun known simply as “Sister Ginny,” Hakeem knows he is welcome. And, like the keys he carries, he knows that the chaplaincy is one that has grown to serve multiple purposes in its more than 25 years since its establishment July 1, 1983.

Hakeem is the fourth in a line of ecumenical chaplains who’ve made preventing inmate recidivism and ending the victimization of communities their goals. He is also the first male and African-American to become chaplain.

In addition to Sister Ginny, who retired this summer, he is preceded by the Rev. Sandy Roberts, a Lutheran pastor, and the late Sister Marie Francine Schettle, also a Catholic nun and the first chaplain for the county’s downtown jail and later the detention center.

Hakeem served as an assistant chaplain, a part-time job now held by the Rev. Stan Widzins. Both positions are funded through members of an independent chaplaincy board, individual donors and local churches, and not the county. The chaplaincy board was established with its first chairman, the Rev. Jack Ottoson, formerly of Lord of Life Church. Ottoson was instrumental in securing a $10,000 grant from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the support of the Kenosha Clergy Association to create the jail chaplaincy program.

“I really love what I see here,” said Hakeem, referring to Kenosha’s high regard for the chaplaincy and the area’s thriving diversity, including its faiths.

A team effort

For Hakeem the work of the chaplain is not a one-man show, but one of teamwork.

“The work cannot be done here without these corrections officers,” he said.

And his work isn’t solely with inmates; he also helps the staff and corrections officers.

“I’m in here for everybody ... anyone who is looking for guidance who is here,” he said.

Peggy Frizzle, a corrections officer at the detention center for 11 years, said the presence of the chaplain, no matter what faith, is something staff members appreciate given the challenges they face.

“It’s very difficult working here,” she said. “Just to talk to him — I can vent. Even though I may laugh about it, he’s there when you want to talk because in here it can take its toll.”

Hakeem said the officers are his “eyes and ears.” They can sense when someone is looking to manipulate them and when inmates are seeking a way out of their “dark place.”

“They (corrections officers) can spot things, and they know when someone really needs to talk,” he said. “Plus I need to hear from them to balance it out.”

“You balance us out, too,” said Frizzle, who had just stopped to chat briefly with Hakeem.

Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Gary Preston, who oversees both the downtown jail and the detention center, said having a chaplain on-site is invaluable because of the connections that person is able to make for people.

“The chaplain is kind of the last ditch for inmates if they can’t make collect phone calls or when we have to notify an inmate of a death of a relative on the outside,” he said.

“A lot of times it helps to have a non-uniformed person around. You’ll find that people who are in jail are really in a hole. But you’ll also see, for example, that the Bible and others have references to jail and (finding) salvation. We’re not here to sell religion, but we’re here to facilitate.”

Sheriff David Beth views the chaplaincy as an important resource for all who are living or working in confinement.

“They’re just great resources in times of need for those who are here against their will or are in there working,” he said.

Ending recidivism

Kenosha’s jail chaplaincy appealed to Hakeem because he found all involved were on the same page.

“I think we’d want them (released inmates) not to come back. Now, that doesn’t always happen,” said Hakeem. “You ask why I sought to be chaplain; I didn’t. The level of cooperation is so high in here. I can’t believe it. In Kenosha, the chaplain’s position is very respected.”

Hakeem said it took some intervention, divine and otherwise, but despite his reluctance, he was always reminded of his calling from God and the advice of his mother.

“Most of the prevailing attitude in society is to kick them to the curb and leave them there,” he said. “My mother told me you serve God and you serve your community, and I’ve come to serve my community.”

Labor of love

Sister Ginny Reichard’s own experience coming in to the chaplaincy was to fulfill a need on the local level.

“Personally for me, it was the county setting. That’s where folks can still be turned around,” said Reichard, who decided to retire after the death of her father earlier this year. “They’re there for a year or less. Some are waiting to go to prison. They’re there for the short term, and often it’s the most difficult time because they’re coming out of the home setting when they realize what they’ve done. That’s when they say to themselves, ‘Oh my God,’ and it really starts hitting.”

In the last decade, the chaplaincy has developed from a visitation and Bible study effort to one that attempts to meet a variety of needs — from helping inmates overcome drug addictions to collecting donations of books and toiletries for the indigent.

Hakeem, who is the president of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Zion, Ill., was raised as a Baptist, but later converted to Islam in the late 1960s. He said he has always been open to learning about diverse faiths. In addition to being a religious leader, Hakeem worked as a reporter for the Waukegan News Sun. He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Lake Forest College.

“I really don’t like people oppressing others, especially when it comes to their beliefs,” he said.

The chance to meet with inmates who are soul searching, “perhaps it is what God wants,” he said. Yet, Hakeem is attuned to any connection that may help.

God or guidance

Hakeem spoke with one man who was addicted to heroin and had no interest in discussing faith or religion. When they first met, Hakeem said they talked about characters on “The Simpsons.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t have anything to do with God,” he said, “but with guidance.”

Reichard added that Hakeem’s arrival comes as more inmates have requested services for Muslims. But Reichard and Hakeem, despite being of distinct faiths, have always agreed on one thing: Chaplains are there for those no matter what their religious beliefs are.

“All of them are our church. You have to be whatever it is they happen to need.”