Ex-offenders working to stop the next offender

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

It’s hard to imagine a sea change emerging from the ranks of men and women with little to no earning power, little to no voting power, and few reliable sofas on which to stretch out their limbs each evening. Yet since winter, members of Roll Call, a group of ex-offenders and their allies, have met weekly at a Near West Side community center to design a neighborhood-based social reintegration and services program for their neighborhood’s share of the 600,000 incarcerated released annually in this country. Pending funding, Roll Call plans to implement its pilot program this fall. With a goal to stabilize 20 exoffenders through housing, employment, and political organizing, Roll Call counts itself among a growing movement to make ex-offenders viable, enfranchised, and engaged members of their families and communities.

At first glance, the need for yet another organization on the Near West Side dedicated to service provision isn’t obvious. A thriving social service industry already saturates the area, a predominately African-American neighborhood in the midst of a massive transition. Hoping to spark reinvestment, the Chicago Housing Authority began demolishing the neighborhood’s dilapidated Henry Horner Homes in 1996. Westhaven, a smaller-scaled, mixedincome residential community of stoops and an earth-toned palette of brick duplexes and three story walk-ups, has slowly risen in the wake of Horner’s demolished public housing towers. Horner’s physical transformation has coincided with an equally dramatic change in social policy: comprehensive welfare reform, characterized by shrinking program budgets, mandates for personal responsibility, and the elusive goal of “self-sufficiency”. Nowadays, local agencies dispatch a small fleet of case managers daily throughout Westhaven. Armed with various incentives, referrals, and paper sheaves, they fan through the streets chasing potential clients, and performance measures.

But members of Roll Call claim that these case managers’ hands are tied when it comes to resolving a critical piece of the self-sufficiency puzzle—namely, the long-term effects of mass incarceration on local families. Roll Call President Steven McCorry notes, “Public aid and prisons are a double edged sword for families here. The grandmom, the mom, and the daughter are on public aid. The same thing generationally happens with men going to prison. Now the women folk have to work for their families. We have to have our men able to work, too. The genie is out of the bottle. A lot of men are coming out of prison. What will happen to them?” McCorry suggests that families in which all members can contribute have a better chance of reaching social and financial stability than those for whom legal or personal constraints keep ex-offender members out of the picture.

As men, and increasingly more women, return to Westhaven from stints in prison, many find themselves legally ineligible for the same supportive services that their family members access while transitioning out of public housing. Within redeveloping Chicago Housing Authority (cha) sites, a criminal history shuts individuals out from participating in training programs and employment services. A criminal history will also restrict an individual from holding, or living on, a cha lease. In Westhaven, some ex-offenders live with family members anyway, jeopardizing the entire household’s lease. Others move between friends and relatives, playing a risky game akin to musical chairs. Except these chairs look more like couches. “Lots of exoffenders here wouldn’t call themselves homeless because they’ve got their mother’s, sister’s, auntie’s or girlfriend’s couches to sleep on,” observes Roll Call ally Keith Jackson. “But that’s just a couch away from being homeless. When you have to go, that’s it. Without stable housing, it’s hard to get a job, or get your personal relationships back in order. It’s easier to land back in prison.”

Ex-offenders grapple with unlucky odds when it comes to getting tangled up again in the criminal justice system. With national recidivism rates topping fifty percent, Chicago area social service providers have taken notice. In addition to the parole system, the city now boasts a handful of supportive housing programs designed for ex-offenders. One lies just two blocks away from the musty community center that temporarily houses Roll Call’s meetings.

Apart from music therapy, workshops on familial responsibility, child advocacy, exoffender parades, and the dream of converting old Cook County Hospital into transitional housing, Roll Call’s plans to break recidivism closely resemble those of other programs. They combine job development, recreation, life skills training, counseling, health services, and case management. Yet instead of taking ex-offenders outside of their communities to an interim facility, Roll Call advocates for neighborhoodbased programming. Its seven-phase program asks ex-offenders to assume the challenge of working on themselves while also being made continually accountable to their family members and local social networks. Roll Call members propose that this work and sense of accountability will help ex-offenders better integrate back into Westhaven, not only for short-term goals like securing a job, but also for longer-term stakes that will benefit their entire community. Roll Call’s Secretary Tony Walton observes, “When people are released, they are released into our community. So we’re talking about their future, but also their children’s future, our children’s future.”

Neighborhood groundedness and the prospect of ex-offenders parading with trumpets in tow aren’t the only things that set Roll Call’s plans apart from other programs that aim to dent high recidivism rates. Roll Call members recognize a role for social experts in working with ex-offenders. However, they argue that fancy degrees cannot trump qualifications that accompany first-hand experience with the prison system, particularly when it comes to making ex-offenders accountable to themselves, their families, and their communities. “Honesty and accountability should be natural. You should trust,” says Irving Washington, who heads up Roll Call’s Jobs Committee. With Washington’s next breath, however, this towering, soft-spoken young man’s seriousness dissolves into laughter, “But by being ex-offenders, we’re used to dishonesty!” McCorry interjects, “An exoffender may not be honest with a social worker. But he has to be straight with me. He knows that I’m just like him, but that I also know the other side. If he’s doing something deceptive or underhanded, I know it. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where people can change and be honest. But we’ll be the ones to do it, because we know what that atmosphere needs to be.”

Roll Call’s vision for achieving unity by reconnecting ex-offenders and their communities through local action, self-determination, and mutual support networks reads like a playbook for solidarity. In fact, its members describe their challenge as helping Westhaven residents and ex-offenders harness their na nascent “solidarity as a people.” They argue that this solidarity will “make us a village, one people, one mindset, one strength” by underscoring the commitments that come from sharing the same interests in mending the neighborhood’s fractured physical and social infrastructure.

Roll Call members emphasize the need for solidarity among local ex-offenders and Westhaven residents, but they do it with a grain of salt in hand. After all, the hope that shared commitments (and actions born of those commitments) will translate to neighborhood residents meeting and managing their own needs meshes almost too well with our “post-welfare” moment. As our government un-shoulders the admittedly tricky task of providing critical and supportive services, like affordable housing, to demographics persistently left behind, resource streams are clipped in neighborhoods like Westhaven. For Roll Call, unlocking remaining resources has become an equally tricky task of navigating the maze of foundations, non-profit, for-profit, and municipal interests that have emerged to provide critical services. When it comes to addressing the concerns of groups like Roll Call, this maze writes mandates for individual self-sufficiency large. Be responsible for yourself, be responsible for selves like you, it insists, invest in yourself, invest in your community. Such mandates run their course in Chicago’s public housing reforms, where publicprivate partnerships steering the process have cast residents as stakeholders of their own transformation.

With grant writing busily underway, and its members crisscrossing the city and state to woo political support, Roll Call is angling to become a stakeholding runner of the “post-welfare” resource maze. Curiously enough, it’s a maze that’s not wholly un-amenable to the emotive contours evoked by the concept of solidarity. However, here, solidarity’s associated collective commitment, trust, and cooperation become articulated through a more transactional metaphor—“social capital.” It’s this capital that today’s grant-driven urban policy, research, and development circles prize so highly. And why shouldn’t it be prized? If all that’s needed for a group to take care of themselves are some start-up funds or expertise that will tap already existing shared commitments, then the need for longer-term, structured, and comprehensive support becomes less obvious.

Members of Roll Call would not deny that the promise of achieving solidarity among exoffenders, their families, and their communities is central to their work. Yet they juggle this promise alongside their potential funders’ expectations, and the practical challenge of organizing trust and commitment in a place where these rosy sentiments cannot be unbuckled from the material constraints of living and working. Where new not-for-profits might pitch start-up funds at the legitimacy that a smart website or cream-colored stationery brings, Roll Call scrambles to cover the bus fare that will ferry members to meetings, or phone cards for them to coordinate planning. As Jackson muses, “Our system of trust isn’t enough, because trust can’t exist in the same way here. Foundations, government, can cause folks to be at each other’s throats because we don’t have the resources we need. There are ten organizations that are supposed to be doing similar things in my neighborhood, and they are all are going after the same little resources.”


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