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Homecoming | FIRSTHAND: Life After Prison

Willette Benford, Chicago's first director of re-entry, in her City Hall office on January 27, 2023.


Every year, about 20,000 people leave Illinois prisons. Two in five will return to prison within three years. State and local officials want to stop this tragic and expensive cycle.

Photo: April Alonso for Injustice Watch/WTTW

In many ways, Nicholas Crayton symbolizes the new approach to reentry in Illinois.

He spent the last two years of his 24-year prison sentence at the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, one of two state facilities opened since 2017 to help people transition from prison back to life outside. While at Kewanee, Crayton took classes, got help with his resume, and worked outside the prison walls, cutting trees, and cleaning up in the city of almost 12,000 people in western Illinois. He made real money — $12 per hour — not the pennies that many prison jobs provide.

“They gave me a state ID,” Crayton said. “They gave me access to the internet — not full internet but partial internet where you can look up jobs and submit your resume.”

But since he was released in October 2022, he’s still had trouble finding a full-time job. He said he’s been upfront with prospective employers about his 2001 conviction for murder. But despite getting an associate degree and a master’s degree while in prison, he’s been turned down from more than two dozen warehouse and other low-wage jobs, he said.

“It weighs on you,” he said. “You have to think, if I fail at this, you’re not just talking about me being homeless, you’re not just talking about me having to sleep on somebody’s couch; you’re talking about a chance that I could go back to prison.”

The challenges for people reentering society after incarceration are plentiful and well documented. In addition to the social stigma of having a criminal record, hundreds of laws and policies prevent formerly incarcerated people from accessing jobs and housing. Experts say those two things are key to the stability needed to stay out of prison.

Since 2019, more than 21,000 people have returned to Illinois prisons while on parole, either for technical parole violations or new charges, according to state data. More than 38 percent of all people released from prison in 2018 returned within three years, only slightly better than the 43 percent five years earlier.

In recent years, state and local officials have begun looking for ways to support people returning from prison and to stop the cycle of recidivism and reincarceration that has disproportionately ensnared Black and Latinx people in the state’s criminal legal system.

In January 2023, Cook County announced a $23 million three-year program to provide housing vouchers and wraparound services to people returning from prison. Approximately one-third of the money, which comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, will go to organizations to provide case management, health care, job placement support, and legal services for people who were incarcerated.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has touted a $13 million initiative, also paid for with federal money, to provide job training, housing, and legal services for people returning from prison.

“If we want people to succeed, we have to really begin to think about removing the barriers that prevent individuals from succeeding,” said Willette Benford, who was tapped in 2022 as Chicago’s first director of re-entry.

State legislators have introduced several bills, including one that would provide wage subsidies to businesses that employ returning residents and another that would create a new Department of Returning Resident Affairs and a statewide system of reentry services. Other efforts are underway to begin to eliminate nearly 1,200 state statutes and administrative rules that advocates say promote perpetual punishment for those who have already served their sentences.

These efforts would help people overcome the stigma of past convictions, and experts say they also will save taxpayer money in the long haul.

“There’s a fiscal problem that we have as a state with recidivism,” said Kevin Brown, senior director for external affairs and community partnerships for the Safer Foundation, one of the largest nonprofits in the state focused on reentry services.

He pointed to a 2018 report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, a state agency, which found that each instance of recidivism costs more than $150,000, on average, in direct costs of incarceration and in indirect social costs.

Yet spending on incarceration still far outpaces spending on services for people who are returning to society. In 2022, Illinois allocated more than $1.7 billion to operate the state’s prison system. A small fraction — less than $50 million — went to life skills reentry centers, such as the one Crayton went to, or other reentry services. Nonprofits such as the Safer Foundation, which has an annual budget of approximately $30 million — a significant portion of which comes from state grants — provide most of the front-line reentry services.

In the coming months, Injustice Watch and WTTW will be taking a closer look at these reentry efforts as part of a joint project called FIRSTHAND: Life After Prison. The series will also probe the unique challenges facing the growing population of older adults leaving prisons and the process by which people have their parole revoked.

City creates new reentry czar

In 2021, Lightfoot created a working group of advocates and city officials to identify the barriers to housing, jobs, and health care faced by people returning to the city after spending time in jail or prison. In November of that year, the committee issued its recommendations, which included the appointment of a new citywide director of re-entry to coordinate the provision of services specifically directed to returning residents.

In May 2022, Lightfoot tapped Benford as the city’s director of re-entry. Benford had been one of the members of the working group. At the time, she was a community organizer working on issues related to reentry and decarceration for a local nonprofit. She was also out of prison for just two years.

Benford was released in 2019 under a new state law that allowed her to present evidence that she had been a victim of domestic violence and to have it considered retroactively as a mitigating factor in her sentencing. She had served 24 years of a 50-year sentence for murder for running over her then-girlfriend, Patricia Phillips, with her car in 1995.

When she got out of prison, Benford had already secured a spot at Grace House, a transitional housing program for women run by the nonprofit St. Leonard’s Ministries. She soon got a job as a legislative aide for 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., after starting as a volunteer in his office.

Her goal now is to provide returning residents with the support and services she had — help she knows many people never get.

Housing is one of the first challenges many people face, Benford said.

“I remember having my first key to my front door, and that was one of the feelings that really, really solidified the fact that I am home and I am moving forward,” she said.

But people with criminal records have often been excluded from public housing and rejected by private landlords. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development prohibits renting public housing to people on lifetime sex offender registries and allows — but doesn’t require — local public housing agencies to reject applicants based on other criminal backgrounds.

There are also a limited number of beds in state- and privately run halfway houses, such as the one Benford lived in when she was first released.

Benford said about half of the $13 million in federal funds will go to providing 140 people with a one-year rental subsidy and help finding housing, along with employment services.

“The job-training component and the employment-placement component is to make sure that when the 12-month subsidy ends, that they are set up to be able to continue to pay their rent,” Benford said.

The rest of the money will go to the city’s existing reentry programming. Benford said the housing pilot program is set to start in spring 2023.

Laws aim to limit ‘permanent punishments’

Marlon Chamberlain has been home since 2012, after serving more than a decade in federal prison on drug charges.

But he’s still often reminded of the social stigma attached to his background, such as when his son asked him to chaperone a field trip and he had to say no because of a prohibition on people with felony records volunteering in schools. Or when his father died a few years ago and named Chamberlain as executor of his estate — but state law excludes people with felony records from serving in that role.

Chamberlain is the campaign manager of the Heartland Alliance’s Fully Free Campaign, which is advocating for an end to these sorts of permanent punishments for people with criminal records.

According to the group’s 2020 report, nearly 1,200 state laws, statutes, or administrative rules permanently punish people with criminal records. The vast majority of them are related to employment. For example, some jobs require criminal background checks. Other laws prevent people with certain felony convictions from obtaining occupational licenses, such as those for locksmiths, mortgage loan originators, or carnival workers, either for a specified period of time after their conviction or forever.

The Fully Free Campaign is working to build support for new legislation that would remove many of these barriers wholesale.

“We realized that if we continued to introduce one bill at a time, every year, to address these different statutes, that we would be doing this work for the rest of our lives,” Chamberlain said.

The state and Cook County have already taken some steps to remove barriers to employment and housing for formerly incarcerated people. In 2019, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed the Just Housing Amendment, which prohibits housing discrimination based solely on a person’s criminal history. Under the ordinance, landlords must first review an applicant’s eligibility before running a background check — and then conduct an individualized assessment of the person’s criminal conviction history before denying them housing.

That same year, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed the Employee Background Fairness Act into law, prohibiting employers from refusing to hire a person because of their criminal history, unless their past offense has a “substantial relationship” to the job and related tasks.

In 2020, State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, first introduced the Securing All Futures for Equitable Reinvestment (SAFER) in Communities Act, which would establish a five-year pilot program to offer local businesses wage subsidies of up to $15,000 per year for each formerly incarcerated person they hire. The subsidy would follow the employee, which would incentivize businesses to hire people and retain them, said Antonio Lightfoot, the organizing director at the Workers Center for Racial Justice, which helped draft the bill.

“If people can take the (wage subsidy) anywhere, they’re more likely to go to a job that’s close to their home, a job they are more passionate about, a job they’re likely to stay at for a long time,” Antonio Lightfoot said.

The original bill, which Slaughter reintroduced in 2022, proposed helping up to 20,000 people get jobs at a cost of $1.5 billion. Despite the bill garnering 19 co-sponsors in the state House of Representatives and legislators scaling the proposal down to 6,000 participants and the cost to $250 million, the bill didn’t make it to a roll call vote that year. Slaughter said legislators ran out of time, and he plans to reintroduce it in the 2023 legislative session.

Advocates say reentry efforts should start inside prison

Antonio Lightfoot said it’s important to focus reentry efforts on jobs because “the strongest correlation between someone returning to prison is whether they have a job or not.”

But one challenge is that many people come out of prison lacking the skills and the training for many jobs.

In 2020, 63 percent of people entering Illinois prisons tested below a sixth-grade education level at intake, and only 14 percent of people had a high school degree or higher at the time of their incarceration, according to a 2021 report from AFSCME Council 31, a public sector union that represents prison employees. The report found that there aren’t enough education programs inside the state’s prisons to help them catch up. The union said the department should invest more in staffing for basic adult education courses and high school equivalency programs.

“We know that education is critical to reducing recidivism,” said Adrienne Alexander, AFSCME Council 31’s director of intergovernmental affairs. “Your options are limited in terms of (getting) a good job that will keep you out of trouble with the law if you don’t have a high school degree.”

In 2022, Pritzker signed another bill into law requiring the state department of corrections to hire a reentry specialist in every prison facility. Those specialists help people apply for government benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and disability, so there’s no gap in coverage when they are released. But advocates want the state to go further and establish a statewide Department of Returning Resident Affairs to coordinate reentry programs across state agencies.

The Second Chance Public Health and Safety Act, also sponsored by Slaughter, is backed by the Safer Foundation and other advocacy groups. Slaughter reintroduced the bill in January 2023 after a similar bill failed to gain traction in 2022.

“We think that creating a department — much like the federal Department of Veteran Affairs – that that type of intentional focus on returning residents is needed because of the many barriers that they face,” said Brown of the Safer Foundation. The bill would pull the different reentry resources into 13 hubs across the state, and reentering residents would be able to access support in one place.

Chamberlain said he thinks Illinois is moving in the right direction when it comes to reentry, but he would like to see an even more individualized approach that starts before people walk out of the prison gates.

“What I would like to suggest is really more of the work of connecting to folks while they’re still on the inside and moving away from the cookie-cutter process. Because everyone’s reentry experience is different,” he said.