Ex-inmates help revitalize community, get ‘humanity back’

On a rainy day last July, Charles Farmer stepped out of the Lincoln Correctional Center without any ID and $30 in his pocket. He’d just turned 38, had 20 years of prison time under his belt and no idea what would come next.

“For 20 years I was taken care of,” Farmer says. “And that’s not a good feeling.”

He returned to the Southwest Side of Chicago, his movement restricted by an ankle monitor as part of his parole. With no job to go to, he spent his first few months of freedom at home until a friend introduced him to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. Within a couple weeks, the nonprofit, with an office about 10 blocks north of his house in Chicago Lawn, hired him to help rehab a building left vacant in the wake of the foreclosure crisis.

“A job makes you put your head up, pull your shoulders back,” he says. “It helped me pull my weight so I’m not a burden anymore.”

More than 30,000 people are released from Illinois state prisons each year, according to the Department of Corrections. Most return to the same poor Chicago neighborhoods they grew up in. But they’re not always welcomed with open-arms, says 16th Ward Ald. JoAnn Thompson, who represents a swath of the Southwest Side with some of the highest concentrations of returning ex-offenders in the state. She’s trying to get approval to build a halfway house, but neighbors oppose it because they’re afraid to live next door to people convicted of crimes.

“If we shut them out, where are our people going to go?” she says.

In another part of the ward, something different is happening. On the 6200 block of South Fairfield Avenue, Farmer has spent the better part of the last year rehabbing a two-flat that ex-offenders and their families will soon call home. In the upcoming Spring issue of The Chicago Reporter, we profile that community’s effort to breathe life back into a building, and a block, devastated by foreclosures. Neighbors there realized that by coming together they could get rid of a drug den and children could walk to school without having to worry about getting caught in gang violence. Meanwhile, ex-offenders are reconnecting with their community. And neighbors are discovering that the same people who once caused harm to the neighborhood were capable of rebuilding it.

“To see them welcoming you with open arms,” Farmer says, proves “if you show them good, they’ll treat you good.” A lot of work went into building that good will. On Thanksgiving, Farmer and other volunteers delivered turkeys. When the snow fell, they shoveled sidewalks.

On Monday, a marching band from Fairfield Academy, the grade school on the block, led a ceremony that, without a word, showed what the community thinks of Farmer and the others who came together to rehab the house.

Farmer and the other four men hired by IMAN all served long prison sentences. Farmer had been behind bars since he was 18 and charged with attempted murder. To them, the construction work has been more than just a job.

“When you grow up in the streets, you’re black hearted,” Farmer says. “Through this project, we’re getting our humanity back.”

 

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