Past is not present: unconventional re–entry programs fight recidivism

Tana Edmonson smiles as she tells her story of her criminal conviction and how she has grown into the person she is today with the help of Felony Franks.

By Ariel Parrella-Aureli

When Tana Edmonson was a student at Triton College in suburban River Grove working toward her GED, she applied for jobs to make ends meet. She received more than 10 job offers, but once her potential employers found out she had a criminal conviction, they changed their minds about hiring her. 

At 44 years old, Edmonson had been convicted of credit card theft, which landed her an eight year prison sentence at Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana in 2011. Because alcohol abuse was part of her defense, she was put in a prison program for substance abuse. Advancing through the program’s four recovery stages was difficult at first for Edmonson, who had to repeat the second phase after flunking it the first time because she was told she was too intimidating and unable to interact with others.

One of the program’s goals was to strengthen social and communication skills. It was her ticket out of prison, so after learning from her mistakes and receiving detailed coaching, Edmonson completed the program and finished her sentence in one year and six months. 

Edmonson’s employment troubles prison ended when she connected with Deno Andrews, owner of Felony Franks, a fast food restaurant nestled in the suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. The friendly neighborhood spot, which opened in 2015 and only employs formerly incarcerated people, was the solution to the challenges Edmonson faced. 

Spending nearly two years there has buoyed her confidence and personal growth. 

“I have learned here at the job that I can get along with anyone, and I can do anything [if] I set my mind to it,” Edmonson said.

Felony Franks stands out as a private re-entry initiative in a field dominated by charitable and religious institutions, and for emphasizing rather than concealing the background of its workforce. It is just one of a wide range of Chicago-area programs and partnerships that have adopted creative approaches to help ex-offenders find employment, combat intransigent stigmas and fight the ongoing problem of recidivism—relapsing into criminal behavior and returning to the penal system—which exacts a high cost to the state and the nation.

Recidivism costs Illinois $118,746 per incident, according to a summer 2015 study from the state’s Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. Although 97 percent of convicted people re-enter society, 48 percent of those return to prison within three years of being released, and 19 percent recidivate within one year, according to the study.

Andrews’ Oak Park establishment is a successor to the original Felony Franks restaurant on the West Side, started by his father, which opened in 2009 and closed five years later.

When Andrews decided to reboot the restaurant, he also created a foundation called The Rescue Foundation to support his work helping the formerly incarcerated to make the transition. The foundation is a nonprofit charity for Felony Franks employees that provides hands-on guidance with financial literacy, communication skills, leadership experience and personal and career goal setting. Andrews also provides employees with spiritual guidance should they so choose, as well as mentors to further help them with important life skills, from filling out taxes, opening a bank account or understanding court documents. 

“None of our subjects have gone back to prison or have been in trouble with the law,” Andrews said. “It’s not magic that we are doing; it’s a very pragmatic approach.”

Since its opening, Felony Franks has seen two employees move on to other careers. One even started a personal training program, 

Andrews said. The restaurant has received at least 1,300 applications but only has six full-time employees at all times.

Andrews likens the people he employs to puzzles with a few pieces missing—character pieces like impulse control or patience. The training and support he provides his staff is designed to fill in the gaps.

“Everybody has missing puzzle pieces,” Andrews said. “Some people have one or two missing pieces, but they can be big, and other people could have 10 missing pieces, but [they] could be small.”

Edmonson’s weakness was communication. She said her work at Felony Franks is teaching her how to better interact with people as a customer service employee. She has learned the importance of eye contact and maintaining a professional attitude. She embodies what the business tries to show others: Formerly incarcerated people are not different but may simply need extra attention and coaching. 

Edmonson said she is not afraid of telling people about her criminal background because it helps remind her where she is now and what she has overcome. 

“I tell customers about what I did because what I did in the past does not make what I am today,” Edmonson said.

The Chicago area has more than 70 re-entry programs on the website of Re-entry Illinois, in addition to social entrepreneurs like Andrews and David Figueroa whose Second Chance Renovations, a construction company, was started in 2014 in Brookfield, Illinois. Figueroa is an ex-convict and former gang member who now has more than 25 years of construction experience. His company employs formerly incarcerated people and teaches carpentry to help them rebuild themselves and their community. 

Similarly, Pete Leonard’s Second Chance Coffee Company in Wheaton, Illinois, which started in 2007, gives jobs to formerly incarcerated people roasting premium coffee called I Have a Bean. Leonard created the company after a relative went to jail and was later convicted. Leonard saw a lack of employment opportunities for them and other formerly incarcerated people in re-entry programs.

“You can have all the re-entry programs in the world, but if businesses will not employ somebody, then that has to be the next step,” Leonard said.

Thirty-seven people who have served time in prison have been employed at Second Chance Coffee since 2009, Leonard said, adding that the majority have gone on to better lives.

Nonprofits such as The North Lawndale Employment Network are also creating businesses staffed by former prisoners. Its subsidiary program, Sweet Beginnings, started in 2005 and offers people coming out of correction facilities the opportunity to work with bees and produce honey and skincare products while learning sustainable living practices, according to Brenda Palms Barber, founder of Sweet Beginnings and executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network.

Palms Barber said employees learn all the skills needed to work in a professional business setting such as discipline and time management, but having a background in beekeeping also shows a competitive advantage that changes the narrative and perception of those transitioning to full-time employment.

Sweet Beginnings’ products are locally sold at 36 retail locations, including Whole Foods Markets, Mariano’s and Green Grocer. Sweet Beginnings workers earn minimum wage and have only a five percent recidivism rate. 

“It speaks to the level of need for employment when people who have fears of bees are still willing to do something that is so unnatural for them to do because they need desperately the work experience,” Palms Barber said.

The social entrepreneur programs stand alongside more traditional initiatives such as St. Leonard’s Ministries, which provide an even more basic need to newly released people from prison: a roof over their heads. St. Leonard’s in the West Town neighborhood offers temporary housing for up to six months, as well as basic education and career-building skills to men and women coming out of prison. 

Chris Roach, program director, said the 40-person house assists those who have no other living options to make sure they do not fall to recidivism.

“If [there is] an individual released with no alternative to making changes in their life, then nine times out of 10, they will revert things that they know how to do best, [like] criminal behavior,” Roach said.

St. Leonard’s is part of the Cook County Sheriff’s Re-entry Network that offers re-entry services to previously incarcerated people and provides support in a multitude of areas. 

Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist and executive director at Cook County Department of Corrections, said these partnerships are resources to people awaiting release.

“While people are in our custody, we are overwhelming them with programming,” Jones Tapia said. “We try to get as many life-changing programs as we can, so we can begin the process of change before the person goes back out into the community.”

One of the largest and most well-known national nonprofit organizations in the re-entry field is the Safer Foundation, which connects formerly incarcerated people with programs and businesses such as Felony Franks, NLEN and St. Leonard’s. 

City officials have also started to provide re-entry programs designed to give individuals who paid for their crimes a clean slate to become “law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying citizens,” according to the City of Chicago’s Ex-Offender Re-entry Initiatives program website. The city offers jobs in city departments such as streets and sanitation, construction and custodian maintenance, and agriculture farming.

While city efforts have increased over the years, diminished government funding concerns Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director at John Howard Association of Illinois, which independently monitors juvenile and adult correctional facilities, policies, and practices to achieve a humane criminal justice system. She said Illinois’ lack of a budget and inadequate resources are deterrents to new programs, which means ex-offenders have fewer social services to rely on.

“If there are not enough community-based services, then you have a real problem,” Vollen-Katz said. “Linking is only as good as what you can link people to.”

As one of the lucky ones, Edmondson knows how fortunate she has been to have found Felony Franks. She is back on track to finish her GED online and hopes to work with children in the future.

“[Felony Franks] gives people the opportunity, [so] they can get a job,” Edmonson said. “Once you have done your time, it should not be held over our heads. Everyone is allowed to have a second chance. For me, what I did in my past was not who I was. I have learned from that and the true [self] of who I really am has come out.”