In light of the record-breaking number of expected parolees released in Illinois this year (including 33,296 statewide and 19,996 citywide), more emphasis than ever has been placed on community leaders to provide adequate employment opportunities for ex-offenders.

“By putting record numbers of parole officers on the street to supervise record numbers of parolees, we’re experiencing some early success in reducing crime in the short-term,” said Deanne Benos, assistant state corrections director. “In the long term, our goal is to reduce recidivism?”to help move as many offenders from guns and crime toward honest jobs.”

An important first step toward achieving this goal took place on April 22, when St. Leonard’s Ministries officially opened the Michael Barlow Center (located on 2120 W. Warren Blvd.).

The center will serve hundreds of men and women every year who were previously convicted of a crime. It will offer an Alternative High School, and Skill Development Training Modules, which provide skills development and job placement in areas such as light manufacturing, food preparation, and maintenance.


First of its kind

It is the first ex-offender employment center in the state of Illinois. The center’s Transitional Employment Placement opportunities will allow men and women to generate modest income, acclimate to a work setting and establish a work history and current references. Meanwhile, Sheltered Care Employment, through the center’s bulk mailing and other small businesses, will provide opportunities for those who cannot directly enter mainstream employment due to a physical and mental disability.

“We know how difficult it can be to be an ex-offender and have to begin a job search,” said Jim Zangs, administrator of the Michael Barlow Center. “However, we try to prepare them as best we can in areas of speaking during interviews, writing resumes and seeking out employers. We want them to be as ready as possible to move on with their lives after incarceration.”

St. Leonard’s Ministries has a long history of providing comprehensive residential case management and support services through interim housing. It has been in existence for over 50 years.

St. Leonard’s House and Grace House, for men and women respectively, provide temporary housing for up to six months for released ex-offenders with no place to stay. Permanent housing is provided by the Ministries’ St. Andrew’s Court and Sanctuary Place.

“Our housing program has been around for about six years and the employment center has been in the works for about five,” said Bob Dougherty, executive director of St. Leonard’s Ministries. “We are certain that this center will have an immediate impact on the recidivism rates citywide.”

Those interested in taking part in either the housing program or the employment center are encouraged to apply early, while still incarcerated, to allow time for their request to be processed and evaluated, as spots in both programs are being filled rapidly.

“It is one of the best things to happen since Indians discovered corn flakes,” said 7th District U.S. Congressman Danny K. Davis about the center. He attended the April 22 opening and was exceedingly pleased by what he saw. “The facility was clearly state-of-the-art, and they provide former inmates with numerous services that will undoubtedly help them re-acclimate themselves back into society.”

Davis has been a champion of ex-offender legislation for several years, feeling that the only way to combat recidivism and crime is to give parolees the opportunity to obtain employment and housing and the St. Leonard’s Ministries’ statistics on their ex-offenders bear this out.

Statewide, the rate of recidivism is nearly 50 percent; however, it is only 20 percent for St. Leonard’s housing residents.

The Michael Barlow Center was named after a former medic during the Vietnam War who developed a crippling drug addiction while overseas and later went to prison. After his release, he went through St. Leonard’s and rebuilt his life, eventually working on the staff at St. Leonard’s, helping other former inmates rebuild their lives. He passed away in 1998.

Those interested in learning more about the Employment Center are encouraged to contact St. Leonard’s House at 312/738-1414.