When Sharon Lacy’s brother approached her excitedly to tell her that he had gotten a drivers’ license, he was 32. She laughed at him. Then she paused.
“It was normal to me, but it wasn’t normal to him,” she realized.
Lacy’s brother Benneth Lee, 60, a former gang leader, spent 15 years of his life in and out of the Illinois prison system, beginning with a stint at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles at age 15.
His prison life climaxed with the Pontiac prison riot in 1978. Lee, along with several other inmates known as leaders of street organizations, was charged with murder for the death of three prison guards. He spent three years on death row before being acquitted of the charges in 1981.
Four months later, he returned to prison one last time.
When he was arrested again in 1984, the judge handed him over to Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, or TASC, where he was treated for a drug addiction, Lee said.
“I went through TASC in ’84 and never looked back.”
Since then he has become a leader in Chicago for mentoring the formerly incarcerated, or “returning citizens,” as many prefer to be called. He obtained a master’s degree, and is now a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern Illinois University. He received recognition from the Department of Justice in 2004 for his work.
That mentoring work involves creating safe spaces for returning citizens to share their experiences and learn from each other. Lee does this through reentry circles sponsored by an organization he cofounded, the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated, or NAEFI.
NAEFI helps with voter registration, resumés and job applications. The reentry circles hosted each week in both Chicago’s West and South Sides provide critical social support structures to those returning home.
NAEFI headquarters in the back of Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. The beige walls display African masks and a Langston Hughes poster that reads, “Reach up your hand…and take a star.”
Laurence Jones, 64, whom Lee asked to join the association in 2010, runs the Saturday morning circle.
Jones himself spent his life from ages 15 to 45 in and out of prison for drugs, theft, and other activities involved in being a “hustler,”—different from being a gangster, he said. He has been out since 1995 when he began a recovery program at the Gateway Foundation, a drug and alcohol treatment center with two facilities in Chicago.
“We teach people how to get right with themselves,” Jones said. “If it doesn’t come from within, it’s not going to come from without.”
The faces change every week, but there are always a few regulars. If Lee isn’t traveling to speak at a reentry-related event, he makes coffee for the meeting attendees and works with his group of interns, students in criminal justice at Chicago State University.
Each circle begins with a moment of silence for those who have died or are still struggling in the cycle of drugs and crime. Then different people around the circle read from handouts about community and unity, ethics and the power of positivity.
Then Jones asks for reentry-related announcements to ensure that the attendees are informed about all of the resources available to them. He welcomes newcomers and invites them to share.
Lee’s “reentry coaches” help guide the conversation from there as, week by week, the circles cover education, record expungement and other topics.
“All of us got a prison story and a street hustling story, but I need people with a reentry story,” Lee said in describing his coaches.
He said to one circle that the coach is like the corner man in boxing, watching for stumbling blocks.
“The corner man sees what you can’t see in the middle of a fight,” Lee said. “That’s where a reentry coach comes in.”
Earnest Roberts Jr., one of the association’s reentry coaches, attends the Saturday circle and runs one on Thursdays in West Garfield Park. Roberts calls himself Lee’s first “guinea pig.” He and Lee knew each other growing up in Austin, and Lee mentored him through his own reentry process in 2008.
“We have to be here in case anybody comes in,” Roberts said. “I tell people about these meetings every day, but the key thing is they have to be ready.”
Roberts may have been a guinea pig, but he uses his success and bubbling positivity to inspire those who are struggling through the reentry process.
“I know this program works, so it’s a must for me to show up,” Roberts said.
Roberts went to prison 11 times before turning his life around and eventually opening his own landscaping business in Austin in 2010. He uses his business to give back to his community by employing high school kids from his neighborhood to help them stay on a good path.
“My neighborhood is still under siege, but there’s an opportunity there,” Roberts said. “I wouldn’t give up on this for nothing in the world.”
Roberts met one of NAEFI’s more recent mentees, William Hill, 65, in Statesville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison. When he comes to the circle, Hill wears a green cabby hat and cowboy boots. He walks with a cane.
Hill was released from prison one year ago after he finished serving 40 years for his conviction for two contract killings that earned him the distinction of being the first man sentenced to death by the electric chair after the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Hill was able to get his sentence changed since the crimes were committed before the death penalty was reinstated.
He vividly recalls the day he got out.
“It felt very strange,” Hill said. “It was real cold. My brother drove all the way up from Missouri to pick me up. It was real strange after 40 years. After 40 years. All you see is the sky for 40 years. You can’t see no cars or nothing. Then all of a sudden you look up, and you’re out there with all this stuff.”
He said he found the circle through Jones. “The way he reached for me, I’ll never forget that,” Hill said. “That’s why I’m here today.”
Hill said he never would have imagined seeing Roberts on the outside and so successful.
“That boy got a work ethic out of this world. I don’t think nobody works hard as Earnest do,” Hill said. “I could call him right now, and he’d come over here and pick me up and take me to do what I got to do. It gives me hope that I could do that. Just getting there is the hard part.”
Roberts explained the motivation behind that commitment.
“Those of us who have a routine have a tendency to last a lot longer,” Roberts said. “When I get up in the morning, I have a strong purpose.”
According to Lee, success comes from changing “value systems” learned in prison and on the streets.
“Part of my reentry, when I showed up I had a strong street culture value system that was functioning for so many years,” Lee explained to a Wednesday circle. “I had to recognize there was another part of me that was starving. That was the real man in me.”
He said he had to kill off the dominant part of himself in order to change.
Jones agreed that one of the most important things for the formerly incarcerated was education.
“Education doesn’t always mean going to school and getting degrees,” Jones said to a Saturday circle. “This is a classroom. This is a heck of a classroom. In the last five or six years I got so much out of this classroom.”
Jones told the circle about a lesson that he learned when he was still in treatment at the Gateway Foundation. He was walking back to the building and decided to take a shortcut through the alley. One of the workers saw him and told him he shouldn’t have done that.
“What do they do in alleys?” Jones recalled the worker asking him.
Jones said he realized that if there had been drugs in the alley and the people carrying them had been caught, he would have been taken away with them, given his history.
“Things that seem small are not small at all,” Jones told the group. “It’s the small things that keep us alive.”
“Everything we do is learned behavior,” Jones added later in an interview. “You have to learn how to be a criminal.”
Lee said the process of unlearning criminal behavior can lead to fear, and fear can lead to failure and recidivism.
“The major barrier is self-image,” Lee explained to a Wednesday circle. “Do I see myself functioning in that arena?”
He recalled the fears of his own reentry process and feeling vulnerable for not knowing how to get a social security card even though his counselor told him that he needed one. He said counselors for reentry programs could be more understanding of those feelings of vulnerability and inferiority that can debilitate a returning citizen.
“Some programs don’t look at that,” Lee said. “They don’t look at why the person didn’t show up.”
Lee said that even when he ran a treatment center in Lincoln Park, he relied on support groups like his reentry circle to help him through moments when he felt like he didn’t belong.
The path to change is not easy and is obstructed by a system that allows discrimination against returning citizens that would not be tolerated against other minority groups, Lee said.
“If they say, ‘we don’t want to hire you because you’re convicted,’ I’m not protected,” he told the panel at a recent justice summit.
Lacy said spending time with her brother and other formerly incarcerated individuals made her realize how difficult having a criminal background can make the rest of a person’s life.
“Sometimes when I look at them, they’re talking like they have a disease or something,” Lacy said.
According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, 75 percent of the current inmates have been incarcerated before. Of the approximately 25,000 people who will be released this year, about half will return to prison within 3 years.
Federal and state laws affect what returning citizens can or cannot do once released. Due to the Health Care Worker Background Check Act, they cannot work in healthcare facilities, even as a janitor, without a special waiver. A slew of other occupations involve similar restrictions.
They may be denied low-income, or Section 8, public housing. Other landlords and employers may choose to reject them. They also face restrictions for federal student aid.
Experts in the field agree that such obstacles contribute to the high recidivism rate.
“There’s no country anywhere in the world that incarcerates as many of its people as we do, whether we’re talking a portion of the population or whether we’re talking actual numbers,” said Chicago Congressman Danny Davis (D-7th), who worked to pass the Second Chance Act in 2007 and continues to promote reforms to improve the reentry experience and reduce recidivism.
Governor Bruce Rauner is taking an interest in improving the criminal justice system, though his motivation is financial. According to Rauner, Illinois spends $1.3 billion on the Department of Corrections each year.
Rauner tasked a new commission with reducing the Illinois prison population by 25 percent over the next 10 years. However, there are no formerly incarcerated individuals on the commission.
“We need to be at the table,” Lee said. “Who can best talk about the psychological impact being incarcerated has on a person? They don’t look at people that’s been to prison as reformed. I run into that a lot. I’ve been out 31 years and I still run into that.”
David Olson, a commission member and professor of criminal justice at Loyola University, said that the people on the commission work extensively with the population of incarcerated and returning citizens.
“We all understand what is needed,” Olson said. “It’s how do we craft it in a way that’s politically and legislatively palpable.”
Doug Marlowe of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, who is also a commission member, stressed at a commission meeting in April the need for evidence-based programs that target people for rehabilitation based on need and risk levels. Needs might include medical care for an untreated condition or more stable housing than the person’s current living situation. Risk means the likelihood that the person will commit the crime again.
Marlowe advocated for more community programs that would rehabilitate those with short sentences without placing them inside a prison. Those programs would also continue assisting people who had received programming in prison as they made their transitions back to society.
“You want to be able to deliver 200 hours of service at a minimum, but if we’re thinking of completing treatment behind bars, that’s wrong,” Marlowe said.
According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, those with long sentences or histories of aggression are likely to be excluded or wait-listed for programs inside prison. However, according to Marlowe, those are the prisoners who need the programs the most.
“If they were denied services in custody, I don’t want to be in the community when they get out,” Marlowe added.
Olson explained after the meeting that even for murderers who serve upwards of 30 years, the sentencing time is based on the American tendency to focus on vengeance, not rehabilitation.
Illinois State Representative La Shawn K. Ford (D-8th) is working to pass several bills for prison reform legislation. His district includes Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, where Lee grew up. He recently hosted a justice summit to gather testimony for a report that would be sent to Rauner.
“For so long we have been looking to criminalize individuals for X and that’s been the first order of business – to charge people [with] crimes.” Ford said. “We have to change the way that we do business in Illinois.”
He said that some of the opposition he faces comes from representatives whose districts benefit from the prison industry.
“If you stop putting people in prison that probably should be diverted to treatment, then the prisons will start closing,” Ford said. “Then those populations, those areas, will lose jobs, and then the economy in those areas will be challenged.”
While government leaders grapple with reform solutions from the top down, Lee has been running reentry circles inside Sheridan Correctional Center, a medium-security prison west of Joliet, to provide some of the continuity of care from inside the prison to the reentry phase out in the world that Marlowe recommended.
“We’ve got to get them thinking and projecting what will be barriers on discharge,” Lee said, explaining that his mentoring serves both as a reality check and as motivation. He said he role-plays with inmates through scenarios so that they are prepared to handle situations that will challenge them once they are out.
“Certainly people like Benny Lee, those individuals are very helpful because they’re right on the ground, nitty gritty, right where the people themselves are,” Davis said. “They help individuals sustain the belief that they can make it without committing a crime and without returning to prison.”
Just as the reentry circle always begins with the same ritual, it ends with a ritual. First, everyone stands.
Jones reaches out his hand to the person to his right and says, “With your hand in my hand, together we can make it.” That person reaches for the next person and repeats, “With your hand in my hand, together we can make it.” The pattern continues until the whole circle is connected.
While the layers of discrimination and other obstacles certainly don’t make life easy for the formerly incarcerated, those who frequent the circle operate under this simple principle.
Jones calls it “feeling full.”
Reporting for this story occurred over an 8-week period during which attendees of the NAEFI reentry circles were gracious enough to allow me into their space. Statements from those circles have been quoted with their permission.