Michael Gerson

CHICAGO -- The streets of West Garfield Park provide a distant vista of the Sears Tower and closer views of corner drug dealers, abandoned buildings still defended by barbed wire and trash pickers pushing shopping carts on their slow rounds. It is a place, in T.S. Eliot's image, of "rats' feet over broken glass." It is also one of the two or three Chicago neighborhoods receiving the most ex-offenders back from prison. Their welcome is uncertain, but their success is essential.

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America's incarceration rate -- massively higher than other democracies and the highest in our history -- has been arguably effective in reducing crime. It also means that about 650,000 men and women return from state and federal prisons to communities each year, a number larger than the active-duty U.S. Army.

"They are coming back from prison to nothing," says Mildred Wiley, senior director of community services at Bethel New Life, a faith-based, community development corporation located in West Garfield Park. About 60 percent of people arriving at Bethel's employment center have been recently incarcerated. But jobs are scarce, and the first six months after release are crucial. "If they are not employed," explains Wiley, "they go back to doing what they were doing. Time is important."

James Riddle, who runs the front desk at Bethel, was released from prison last December. Now 42, he served a 20-year term -- a sentence that took his young adulthood and spanned the entire childhood of his daughter. He recalled to me one early prison visit by his daughter. "She said to me, 'Please don't get into trouble so you can come home.' I realized that everything is not about me. It affects those who love me." Riddle is finally home, but his 22-year-old daughter lives in Atlanta.

Some obstacles faced by ex-offenders are practical. They leave prison without a Social Security card or state identification. "You need an ID to get an ID," says Riddle. "It is extremely hard." Housing is often a challenge. Riddle lives with his mother in her home, but new rules make it almost impossible for ex-offenders to reside in public housing. Many employers simply won't hire ex-offenders, though Bethel works with a number that do. "Most people say you are welcome," Riddle told me, "but you are not really welcome. You are a burden."


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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