Imagine being 18 years old, possibly a witness to – or victim of – abuse. You turn to drugs or alcohol, or maybe you join a gang. And on one disastrous day, a loaded gun in your hand forever changes the course of your life. You are convicted of a felony and sent to prison, to spend a quarter-century or more locked away from the rest of the world.
You serve your time, and suddenly, as a middle-aged adult, you find yourself outside prison walls with nothing but a few dollars, a bus ticket to the nearest big city, and a list of homeless shelters in neighborhoods where opportunities are limited. You quickly discover that for various reasons you don’t even qualify for most of those shelters. On top of all of that, you may be struggling with addiction, anxiety, depression, or all of the above.
Turns out, your troubles are just beginning.
“Nobody tells incarcerated people that their debt to society comes with interest.”
The fifth chapter in WTTW’s multi-year, multimedia FIRSTHAND initiative explores what happens when the more than 20,000 people leaving Illinois prisons each year are faced with barriers on seemingly every aspect of their everyday lives, setting them up to re-offend and land back in prison.
Tawana Pope is one of those individuals. After a rough start – addiction led her to criminal acts and several stints in jail – she made the decision to change her life. Now, as an ordained minister and author, she has formed her own non-profit organization – Diamonds in the Making Outreach – to help others in her situation. Today, she is an inspiration to many former and currently incarcerated people, to whom she says, “I’ll be the light for you when you can’t be a light for yourself.”
Nicholas Crayton could probably use some of that light. Counting down the final days of his 24-year prison sentence, and despite earning a master’s degree and becoming fluent in languages while behind bars, he worries about how he will cope on the outside, as he is, as he admits, “intellectually grown, but emotionally still 18.” Having served the last part of his sentence at the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, he hopes he is prepared for the modern world that awaits him, and we watch as he learns to drive a car and marvels at such everyday innovations as smart TVs and iPhones.
Given the immense challenges many formerly incarcerated people experience in finding housing, Marcelo de Jesus Velazquez feels fortunate to have been accepted at Precious Blood, a non-profit housing program for returning citizens. A Puerto Rican native who moved to Humboldt Park when he was 10, Marcelo’s affiliation with a gang led to gun violence and a prison sentence of more than 20 years. Now that he’s out, he’s finding that his freedom comes with justifiable fear – that “the smallest thing will land me back in prison.” He also struggles to connect with his son Marcelo, Jr., who was born shortly after his conviction. For his part, Marcelo, Jr. thinks his father is alive because of the lessons he learned in prison.
Kyle Hilbert’s story would resonate with many. He became dependent on painkillers prescribed by a dentist, which eventually led to an encounter with (and crippling addiction to) heroin. He was jailed numerous times for drug possession or theft to support his habit. Now out of prison and finally clean, Kyle has been accepted into a structured rehabilitation program at a halfway house. He is also going through the byzantine process of getting his criminal record expunged, which will open up many more job and housing possibilities for him. He is hopeful: “I won’t say for sure that nothing bad is going to happen…but I have too much going for me now,” he says.
Paul S. would agree with that sentiment, despite operating under the most restrictions of all – his name is permanently listed on the National Sex Offender Registry. After being molested in his youth, Paul was suicidal, began taking drugs and was convicted of aggravated child molestation, resulting in a 15-year prison sentence. Now that he’s out, his housing options are extremely limited (he cannot be or live near schools, parks, and many other places where children congregate), and he suffers from social anxiety due to the stigma. But things are definitely looking up: he has found religion, supportive therapy, and a place to stay, and is in a relationship with Janine, a woman he affectionately calls "my love."
All of these people and thousands of others are constrained by laws – from the routine to the ridiculous (such as being barred from owning a falcon or attending a bingo game) – that keep them from reaching their full potential. And the stigma of incarceration often takes them out of the running for good jobs and quality housing. But those who are helping with reentry – such as the Illinois Justice Project, Chicago Beyond, Legal Aid Chicago, McCormick Reentry, and the Fully Free Campaign, all represented in the FIRSTHAND expert talks – are determined to change that. As Marlon Chamberlain says, “We’re striving to create a world without permanent punishments – a world where people can make mistakes, and have an opportunity to fully recover. A chance to be fully free.”
FIRSTHAND: Life After Prison presents five short documentaries; five expert talks by community and thought leaders; text and visual journalism in partnership with Injustice Watch, the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, and WTTW News; a companion discussion guide for schools, libraries, and community organizations; and community conversations with thought leaders and project participants extending the reach of the project into Chicago neighborhoods. To accompany the launch of the project on February 13, WTTW News devotes a special episode of Chicago Tonight to the restrictions placed on formerly incarcerated people.