No turning back

Courtney Williams (left) watches as Mars Pope flips through a dictionary during a class in the North Lawndale Employment Network's ex-offender program. (Photo by Andre Vospette)

Courtney Williams (left) watches as Mars Pope flips through a dictionary during a class in the North Lawndale Employment Network's ex-offender program. (Photo by Andre Vospette)

Garland Rutledge is a realist.

A hard life and nearly 30 years of cycling in and out of prison have left Rutledge, 44, with a thin frame and eyes shadowed by dark bags. Now all he wants is a job. But, in the two years since his most recent release from prison, he has not been able to find anything stable.

In March, he attended one of Chicago’s few job-training programs specifically tailored to ex-offenders. When one of the program’s teachers encouraged Rutledge and his classmates to dream about their futures, some talked about becoming children’s counselors, dog trainers or wedding photographers.

Rutledge, who once thought about becoming a real-estate agent, would no longer let himself believe in such dreams for even a minute. An ex-felon like him, he reasoned, doesn’t have a chance. “I wasted a lot of time,” he said near the end of the four-week program offered by the North Lawndale Employment Network, a non-profit on the city’s West Side that helps former prisoners find work.

“I am not getting any younger. Now I just want enough money to be Mr. Mom to my children and to send my babies to school.”
Officials with the program said drug addiction is the most common obstacle for ex-offenders.

To be successful, Rutledge and his classmates must also grow tired of the criminal lifestyle and become unyielding in their determination not to go back.

Many of the men and women who would show up at the orientation of the North Lawndale program, which was identified by the Illinois Workforce Development Board as a model for ex-offenders, are not at this point and do not make it through.
The Chicago Reporter followed Rutledge’s class for six months, beginning with its orientation meeting on Friday, March 21, and found that even those that do graduate from this program face long odds in their quest for stable jobs.

While no government agency in Illinois tracks the job status of all individuals with criminal records, employment data for the state’s parolees paints a stark picture of the job outlook for ex-offenders. As of March 31, about 42 percent of the 30,962 men and women on parole in Illinois were employed, and a quarter of those working had only part-time jobs, according to a Reporter analysis of Illinois Department of Corrections data.

Some 85 percent of those leaving prison must complete their sentences on parole, which can last from eight months to the rest of their lives, depending on the crime.

The prospects are worse for black men, like Rutledge, who come from the most resource-starved neighborhoods in Chicago.
The 10 Chicago ZIP codes with the city’s lowest median household income figures are home to one-fifth of Illinois’ parolees, but less than 3 percent of the state’s entire population.

About 70 percent of parolees reporting to parole offices in those predominantly black and Latino areas said they had no jobs. And, in Cook County, black men are more likely than any other group to find themselves back in prison on a new felony conviction within three years.

“In many of these poverty-stricken areas, jobs don’t exist, and being an ex-offender just adds another dimension to the struggle to find work,” said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, a Democrat whose 7th Congressional District includes the West Side, where many ex-offenders live.

Davis said programs like the one offered by the North Lawndale Employment Network can teach ex-offenders how to make themselves desirable to employers.

“Part of it is changing the thinking of society and part of it is changing the thinking of the ex-offender,” he said. “We need to teach the ex-offender what to expect and how to overcome the barriers while, at the same time, we need to tear down the barriers.”

The neighborhood’s troubles are obvious to anyone getting off the Eisenhower Expressway at Kostner Avenue and heading to the United Baptist Church, where the North Lawndale Employment Network’s program is held. A few factories and warehouses are still operational, but they are little islands of activity amid blocks of desolate buildings. Some crumbling shells of the old factories still stand, while others have been torn down, leaving empty, litter-strewn lots.

Even on weekdays, small groups of men in baggy jeans, leather jackets and baseball caps stand on the corners.

The mauve-brick church at 4222 W. Roosevelt Road. is one of the few new buildings around. On first and third Fridays, a steady stream of people crowd into the large, high-ceilinged classroom where the orientation takes place. Forming a semi-circle around Walter L. Boyd, the program manager, some sit in pink cushioned seats, others in folding chairs.

On March 21, about 35 men and five women attended the orientation. One at a time, Boyd approached them all, shook their hands and asked them their names. Some still hung onto a cool demeanor, looking down as they shook his hand and muttering their names. Others appeared to be more serious, firmly gripping Boyd’s hand and looking him straight in the eyes.

The program, Boyd told the group, seeks to level the playing field by only sending applicants to job interviews where the employer is willing to hire an ex-offender.

But, in order to graduate, he explained, participants have to submit to two drug tests and can miss no more than two classes.

The program would begin the following Tuesday and meet for five hours each weekday for four weeks.

Boyd tried to assure the class that the rules were not meant to be punitive, but rather to see if people were “job ready.”

Employers want employees to come to work on a regular basis, and most of them require employees to pass drug tests, he said. Boyd suggested that, if any of them knew they were going to have a positive drug test, they should leave, get clean and come back another time.

Seven of the men got up and walked out of the room. Boyd paused, but didn’t say a word.

Some left with a shrug and a smirk, but Tyree Taylor looked stricken. “I am kind of dirty as far as drugs,” he said. “I just smoked some weed yesterday.” Taylor said he was planning to stop using drugs, but that he had been depressed since the death of his grandmother, who raised him. He had been unemployed for two years and no longer had anyone to support him. “It has been a rough year for me,” he said.

A few men asked Boyd about excused absences for court dates or job interviews. Boyd told them that, if they didn’t think they could attend regularly, they should come back when they had the time.

At the conclusion of the orientation, Boyd asked those who were interested in participating in the program to stay and take a test. They would also have to return on Monday for another test so the program’s teachers and job developers would know their education levels and attitudes about work.

Twenty-one people remained.

Over the weekend, several more changed their minds, and others left during the program’s first week. Just seven days after the orientation, only six men and one woman remained. Two of the men eventually stopped coming, one because he couldn’t find stable housing and the other because a relative helped him get a job painting houses. The remaining five–all African Americans–quickly became a tight-knit group. Rutledge was one of them. Helen Towner, who spent time in Dwight Correctional Center after violating probation on an earlier drug conviction, was the quiet one. As the men shared stories, she didn’t say much about herself.

Mars Pope, who came to Chicago after spending 10 years in an Arkansas prison, was the sage, always offering a word of advice or a long, drawn-out story. “There’s no such thing as easy money, just like there’s no such thing as easy time,” he told the others one day when they were complaining about the difficulty of getting a job.

Jacob Graves, a thin, light-skinned man, was the jokester who had gone by many colorful nicknames, such as “China Man,” “Slick” and “Rooster Red.”

Courtney Williams, 23, was the youngest member of the group. Growing up in Belize and then spending some time in New York before coming to Chicago, Williams talked fast and spoke with a slight accent. His long, winding, wacky stories about young women sometimes raised the eyebrows of older men. Still, they found him endearing, often referring to him as “junior” or “son.”

The group stuck it out and completed the program. Such attrition–from 40 initially expressing interest to five graduates–is unusual, said Brenda Palms-Barber, executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network.

On average, she said, about 17 people complete the program.

Barber said ex-offenders who can’t participate because of lingering problems are referred to social service agencies that can help them. “We can’t forget what our role is,” she said.

The program gained a contract with the Illinois Department of Corrections to help inmates begin developing transition plans starting six months before they are to be released.

North Lawndale’s experience is not un-common. Advocates say many ex-offenders face barriers that they can’t overcome, as some leave prison still addicted to drugs, while others are still enticed by the streets.

“I can tell you this: People want help initially,” said Frank Love, neighborhood connections employment project director at the Westside Health Authority, a social service agency. “But sometimes they get frustrated and they don’t come back. They are used to doing things a certain way and having a certain behavior. To be honest, some of the ex-offenders get combative when you tell them to change.”

The Reporter has surveyed all employment programs that are listed in two resource guides for ex-offenders–one distributed to inmates by the state’s prisons and the other developed by Davis’ office. Most of the programs reported that they struggle like North Lawndale to get clients into jobs and to keep them from quitting or getting fired.

Even the most established job-placement agency for ex-offenders in the state, the Safer Foundation, places only about one-third of the more than 4,500 ex-offenders it serves each year, said Kathy Woods, the organization’s associate vice president for workforce strategies.

Of those who get jobs, a third of them get fired or quit within 30 days, Woods said.

The Westside Health Authority was recently awarded a city contract to help place ex-offenders in jobs. Love said its goal is to get 30 people working for at least 90 days.

“It’s going to be tedious and it’s going to be tough,” he said. “I suppose we can do it. The question is, ‘Will they be able to get jobs with salaries at livable wages?'”

Most of the directors of employment programs for ex-offenders agree that their clients need intense training before they hit the job market.

In the best-case scenario, they’d learn a trade or skill–like plumbing or operating a forklift–that would give them an edge when approaching an employer.

But this type of schooling takes at least 16 weeks, and most ex-offenders, some of them living in shelters, cannot wait that long.

“You can’t tell a 35-year-old man that ‘You need to go to classes at Malcolm X [College]’ when he needs a job and has mouths to feed,” Boyd said. “That is the heartbreaker. They need a job with self-supportive wages before they can go back to school, but it is hard to get a job without school.”

Benny Lee, a former gang leader who has spent 15 years in and out of prison, said it is hard to keep ex-prisoners on the right track when they are unprepared to support themselves.

“The problem is these people don’t have a foundation. They can’t cope with life on life’s terms,” said Lee, who once ran an in-patient drug treatment program for ex-offenders and now works at Inner Voice, a West Side social service agency, where he refers homeless men and women to services. “You can’t build a shield on a battlefield, and if you don’t have a shield, you can’t withstand the war.”

Job readiness and job placement programs for ex-offenders, given their skill levels and backgrounds, must get men and women to give up on their past lifestyles and accept that they might have to take menial jobs.

But several advocates and program directors said that’s a tough assignment, especially for people who were involved in the drug trade. Those individuals thought they were the big dog on the block. They worked for themselves and made lots of money. But now they have to go legit. They used to laugh at people like that, said Lee, who went through this transition as a young man.

“Now they have to get used to being a mark,” he said. “They have to walk by with the white shirt buttoned all the way up.”
After 10 years of selling drugs, stealing and cycling in and out of prison, Antoinette Wilson finally came to a place within herself that made her want to stop.

Part of her desire came after finding a connection with God, and part came from her participation in a drug treatment program. But she said the moment she knew she needed to change was when she got word that her severely disabled 12-year-old daughter had died in her sleep.

“[The prison officials] didn’t even let me go to her funeral,” she said.

In October 2002, after her most recent release from prison, Wilson went to the Westside Health Authority’s storefront employment office on the corner of Chicago and Cicero avenues. Eventually, she landed a job working the nightshift as the watchman at a local construction site. “Most of the time when Mr. Love gave me job leads, I followed up on them that day,” she said. “I told them I was interested regardless of the hours.”

To help ex-offenders make the transition that Wilson has made, the North Lawndale program gets them to confront their emotions and the harsh realities they will face in the working world.

Two of the older men in the class, Rutledge and Graves, said they were ready to make a change–but it has taken them a long time to get there.

Graves said he has spent a good part of his life in jail, serving five prison terms. His last sentence was for federal mail fraud, and, during his time in the North Lawndale program, he was still locked up at the Salvation Army Freedom Center, a community prison program at 1515 W. Monroe St.

An injury Graves suffered while working construction has left his swagger with a slight drag. He now wears an orthopedic brace and orthopedic shoes. And a lifestyle filled with drugs and alcohol has given way to diabetes, inflammation of the lungs and high blood pressure.

Graves said he wants a job so he can pay child support–something he’s never done. He has four grown children, but his fifth, the youngest, is 10.

Addicted to heroin and cocaine, Rutledge was arrested more than 40 times for offenses ranging from drug dealing to burglary to aggravated assault. He said he once thought he’d spend his life entrenched in criminal activity.

Since he was 15 years old, Rutledge has been caught up in what he now calls the “madness of the streets.”

He said he started getting disenchanted with it when the drug laws became harsher in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then what he saw as minor offenses began landing him in jail for years at a time. In recent years, he decided to go straight when his girlfriend gave birth to two children, one of them while she was in prison, and his 65-year-old mother had to become their foster parent. “She is too old to be running after little kids,” he said.

The North Lawndale program’s first week is spent with a counselor in an intense five-hour-a-day anger management session to confront the frustration that many ex-offenders harbor when they leave prison.

Rutledge and Graves voluntarily continued meeting with the counselor during a lunchtime group therapy session until their graduation.

Graves said he doesn’t think that anyone ever gets over the psychological turmoil of being locked up in prison. Shutting his eyes, Graves recalled that, when a prisoner was raping or beating another, the howling sound of the inflicted pain sent tremors from one cell to another.

To get through the nights, he said the men would sing a spiritual: “You can kill this old body, you can put it in the hole, but you can’t take Jesus away from me.”

“The song was saying that, no matter what, you can’t let your spirit down,” he said. “It is the most important thing.”

During the second week, called Right Thinking, ex-offenders are challenged to identify their past mistakes and to understand what led them to make those decisions.

Dennis Deer, a rehabilitation psychologist who developed the curriculum, said ex-offenders have to be sick and tired of the criminal lifestyle to transform themselves.

With the drug trade pulsating in their neighborhoods, ex-offenders must have inner strength to walk away, said Deer, who grew up in North Lawndale and still lives there.

“There is an old saying: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, then you are always going to get what you’ve always got,'” he said.

Two questions Deer asks the participants are “Do you have another bit in you?” and “What is your freedom worth?”

Rutledge said there was nothing worth going back to prison for. “I wouldn’t want to be in the position to have to give up my freedom,” Rutledge said. “I know everyone out there. I know Ray Ray and Tyrone and Willie and Neil, but I am not going to put myself in a bad situation for none of them. Now it is about me or my kids.”

During the third week, Dwight Battles, a tall, exacting man, teaches a class that outlines the “rules and regulations of work.”

He warned his class that angry outbursts can get them fired. Too many people, he said, get fired because they don’t know how to respond to things that happen on the job, like bosses talking down to employees or wages being garnished for child support.

Battles’ point resounded with Pope. As he gets upset, his voice grows louder, and he starts pointing and yelling, he said. Pope hopes he will be able to recognize when he is getting upset and calm down before it gets him in trouble.

“My anger and inability to control myself are at the root of all my bad decisions over the last 20 or 30 years,” he said.

The last week of the program is devoted to technical skills such as writing resumés and identifying good job prospects. And, on the day before graduation, participants are expected to dress professionally and endure videotaped mock interviews. They then review the videotapes to assess their performance.

Pope and Graves wore grey and black suits. Williams looked snazzy in his brown pants and snakeskin shoes. Only Rutledge came in his everyday clothes, giving a long-winded excuse about his baby being sick and not having time to get an outfit together.

But Rutledge was just as nervous as the rest, with his right leg constantly bouncing up and down. Williams was so anxious that he blushed and had to stop the interview and start over. Pope, worried that his body language might give off the vibe of the street, looked strained as he kept his back straight and his hands tightly folded in front of him.

Listening in on the interviews, job developer Marvin Coklow excitedly told the graduates that they were “ready for an opportunity.” But he then told them they would be looking for work in a “horrible, horrible” job market. “I have never seen the economy this bad,” he said.

His strategy is to concentrate on jobs in customer service, security, labor and retail warehousing.

Not thrilled by those prospects, Rutledge sighed and talked freely about how easy it would be to go back to drug dealing. “A person can only take so much,” he said.

Numerous studies have shown that employment, or the lack of it, is one of the factors that determines whether an ex-offender will get in trouble again. State corrections data show that 54 percent of those released from Illinois prisons during fiscal year 2000 returned to prison within three years. The recidivism rate for black men, nearly 60 percent, was the highest of any group.

Illinois Department of Corrections Director Roger E. Walker Jr., appointed to the post by Gov. Rod Blagojevich this year, said he is committed to “stopping the vicious cycle.”

“Before the ink dries on parole papers, they are sent back to prison,” said Walker, the former sheriff of Macon County, a depressed area in central Illinois.

Walker said he and the governor plan to lower the recidivism rate by reopening the shuttered Sheridan Correctional Center as a drug treatment facility, hiring an additional 350 parole officers and teaching them how to do case management.

Sharron D. Matthews, director of public policy and advocacy for the Safer Foundation, said she sees a need for more parole officers.

But, in order to help parolees, there have to be effective training programs and other supportive services available for them even before they leave prison, she said. “I am just sad that there are not any resources for anything else.”

Walker, who admits that not enough effective programs exist, said there’s little he can do given the state’s strapped budget. Instead, the department must look to social service agencies, foundations and companies to develop programs and find jobs for ex-offenders. “We cannot do it alone,” he said.

Advocates say that the biggest missing piece for getting ex-offenders jobs is the jobs themselves.

“In these communities, there are no opportunities,” said Lee, who volunteers with an organization called Positive Anti-Crime Thrust Inc., whose agenda includes helping ex-offenders start their own businesses. “There are no alternatives. There are only little groups, like ours, fighting.”

Walker Harris, an owner of Harris Ice Company, said he actively recruits ex-offenders through the job training programs.

Working in the heart of North Lawndale, Harris said he has found that people with criminal records are usually good employees because they are grateful for the job. Some of his employees are former prisoners.

“They have a good job and they have health insurance,” he said. “They are not going to let anyone on the outside mess it up. They are very conscientious.”

Love said small, neighborhood businesses might hire ex-offenders, but they don’t have many jobs to offer. Large employers are often afraid of ex-offenders and are more aware of prospective employees with prison records because they typically run background checks, said Tom Wetzel, the director of business relations for the North Lawndale Employment Network.

“They remember the last horrific crime they saw on the news, and they become afraid,” Wetzel said. “Ex-offenders can only get the jobs that even immigrants don’t want.”

The fact that few companies will hire ex-offenders had clear consequences for the class of five from the North Lawndale Employment Network’s program.

Months later, Wetzel sounded depressed as he talked about his subsequent contact with the participants. “This has been a real problem for us,” he said. “If we don’t actively follow up with them, then, by the time we call them, their phone is disconnected and they are nowhere to be found.”

Towner, whose sister died right before graduation, immediately vanished, never even returning the Monday after graduation to pick up her certificate. Once released from the Salvation Army program in June, Graves, who has been clean for 13 years, had a job waiting for him as the assistant health manager at the South Suburban Recovery Center in Harvey.

Pope, Rutledge and Williams all started window-washing jobs soon after the end of the program. But most of the work was located in west suburban Downers Grove, and the men quickly tired of the long trip and low wages.

“It wasn’t worth it to wake up at 3 a.m. to get there and then only make $35 a day,” Pope said.

At first, Rutledge did keep in contact with the program’s staff, especially a counselor who was working with his Department of Children and Family Services caseworker and lawyers to prepare him for full custody of his children.

But, just days before his court date, Rutledge disappeared.

Under the pressure to move out of his mother’s house, Williams is frustrated. Despite his involvement in the program, it took several months for him to find a job. Williams said he is now working 12-hour shifts doing machine operating at Sweetheart Cup on the Southwest Side. If things don’t work out, Williams said he has a job prospect with an uncle who works for the city of Aurora doing waste management.

He might also move to Minnesota with another uncle who tells him that jobs there are plentiful.

Even though he didn’t get a stable job, Pope said the lessons he learned during the program were valuable.

Pope has found steady work doing odd jobs like washing windows, painting and yard work. “It is tough out there,” he said. “Basically, I just try to keep myself busy. –¦ Anything to make an honest living.”

Kathryn Monroe and Desiree Evans helped research this article.

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