Formerly incarcerated, on hard times

By Darryl Holliday

Jermell Sledge of Chicago Heights spent 12 years in Illinois prisons before re-entering society. He was fired from Walmart after the company learned about his ex-offender status and said he has gone six months to a year without a job despite spending up to eight hours a day looking for one.

Sledge, 34, is one of the nearly 260,000 individuals released from Illinois prisons every year, according to Cory Foster, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections. Many of these individuals are finding it increasingly difficult to find employment and transition back into the community.

According to IDOC’s most recent quarterly report released on Oct.1, the state prison system is nearing capacity with a record high of more than 47,000 inmates currently in the state’s 27 prisons.

“Prisons are so crowded that there aren’t programs available to help people stay out of [them]” said Bob Dougherty, executive director at St. Leonard’s Ministries, which provides employment, residential and education services for formerly incarcerated men and women. “So more often than not, a person comes out of prison not much better than he or she went in.”

According to Dougherty and Ric Gudell, executive director of the Illinois Manufacturing Foundation, programs aimed at guiding ex-offenders through the re-entry process increasingly find many individuals don’t have the life skills necessary to be successful once released.

“Unless we help them, the numbers will continue to grow,” Dougherty said, noting the state’s recidivism rate—the rate at which ex-offenders re-offend—currently stands at more than 50 percent.

Organizations such as St. Leonard’s, 2100 W. Warren Blvd., among others, have provided necessary skills through education and job training. The nonprofit includes two separate interim housing facilities for men and women accepted to the program upon leaving prison. In addition to its residential services, St. Leonard’s also maintains the Michael Barlow Center, which provides education and employment training in fields such as green building maintenance.

David Williams, a 46-year-old West Side native, has resided at St. Leonard’s for eight months. He was incarcerated three times at various Illinois prisons since 1986 but said St. Leonard’s has helped him find employment and change his life.

According to Williams, more programs are needed to curb the rise in imprisonment, especially for youth headed down the road he was on.

“In this day and age there aren’t enough programs, they’re closing down schools and recreation centers and opening up prisons,” Williams said. “Basically you’re telling [communities] you want these young people to end up in prison and not in school.”

Throughout the last 30 years, the number of inmates rate has risen drastically around the country, and in Illinois. Prisons in the state saw a rise of around 7,500 inmates in 1970 to more than 47,000 in 2010. This corresponds with a national surge of around 250,000 to more than 1.5 million inmates in the same period.

According to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, the sentencing of more people for longer periods of time is largely due to policy changes and not changes in the crime rate. Policies such as the U.S. war on drugs and the “get tough” movement, which began in the 1970s, are largely seen as factors in the country’s unprecedented rise in incarceration.

“I think we should take a close look at who we’re sending to prison, why and what other kinds of supervision we could do in the community setting that could divert some of those people away from prison into more constructive ways of dealing with the consequences of their crime,” Mauer said. “Right now far too many prisons function as warehouses with relatively little in the way of education, vocational and substance abuse training.”

Approximately 95 percent of the country’s prisoners will eventually return to the community. According to Mauer, for groups where jail-time has become excessively commonplace, such as low-income, disadvantaged communities of color, the cumulative impact of such high imprisonment rates

is critical.

Though some formerly incarcerated individuals, such as David Williams, have had their persistence pay off in the form of employment, many more deal with the stigma of incarceration that restricts them from productively re-entering society.

As the economical reality remains dire for many, formerly incarcerated men and women are placed at the end of the line, despite attempts to change their lives and rejoin the community.

Maurice Richmond, 45, who was incarcerated for eight years, is in a similar position, though he remains hopeful that he will eventually find employment.

“It’s about being patient and doing the right thing,” Richmond said. “I’m not going back to the streets, no matter

what happens. I’m going in all the right directions and doing the right things. Eventually something will come my way.”