Land of the Second Chance

Michael Gerson

9/18/2009 12:01:00 AM - 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."

Addiction is a particular challenge. "When I was first locked up," Riddle explains, "there were more drugs inside than on the street. Through the years, that changed. Now it is more rare." Why the change? "Because they started screening the police coming in (and) started extensive searches of family coming in."

"But going to jail doesn't solve a drug problem. It is forced drug rehabilitation. People say, 'I'm going to get high the first day I'm out.'" Communities on Chicago's West Side offer few resources even for those who want to stay clean.

Riddle insists that the largest obstacles to finding a new life are internal. "The street, the hustle, is calling. You come back and don't want the lifestyle. Then you see people you knew. Those people didn't write you a letter in prison. They didn't tell your mother hello. But they see you, and it's like you've never been gone: 'You my man.' But you are not my friend. They don't give you money, they give you drugs, get you on a corner."

In fact, more than 50 percent of ex-offenders are in legal trouble again within three years. The call of the streets is itself, according to Riddle, a kind of "addiction." And many, in the stark transition from one day in total confinement to the next in total freedom, succumb. What returning felons need most, especially in the first months, is a safe transition zone, including housing, addiction treatment, job experience to begin building a resume and help with family reunification. All this is expensive -- but not so expensive as imprisonment. The Second Chance Act -- signed by President George W. Bush in 2008 -- encourages these services. President Barack Obama proposes to expand its funding. It is the sort of needed spending that should unite the parties.

Riddle considers himself "blessed." His daughter is in college getting a business degree. His job at Bethel gives him a sense of accomplishment. "They saw something in me," he says. That ability to see humanity beyond failure is what makes America the land of the second chance.