Gladys Tapia and Hazel Lewis are two women joined not only by geography, but also a shared experience in dealing with the criminal justice system.

Each woman, both residents of Oak Park, has adult children and other relatives who have previously served time in prison.

As such, they have each decided to give a voice to the less acknowledged victims of criminal cases: the families of the inmates.

Tapia and Lewis spoke at a forum in August at Third Unitarian Church, 301 N. Mayfield Ave., about their experiences in helping their children rebuild their lives – both during and after incarceration.

“My ex-husband was in and out of jail throughout our marriage, and I saw the mechanisms at work that prevented him from really being able to get his life together after he got out,” said Lewis.

The 56-year-old loan officer and mother of two sons said programs such as the Safer Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps ex-offenders find employment, housing and social services, do not substantially assist ex-offenders after incarceration.

Lewis said that among the problems that she sees within the prison system are the lack of skill training programs, and the fact that criminals on house arrest are not permitted to work, and therefore can’t financially support themselves. The families also receive to financial assistance to house them.

“The prison is making money even if he’s not there because he is still on their books, but the families that take care of him receive nothing,” said Lewis. “This is a policy that is seriously unfair to the families. In some ways, we are being punished by being a mother to an ex-offender.”

Lewis’ youngest son Jamarl, like Hazel’s former husband, went through a stretch of recidivism due to his constant need for narcotics. He was sentenced to two years for home invasion in 2004.

“He was a good student that just got with the wrong crowd,” Lewis said. “I think that is one of the things I wanted the people of Third Unitarian Church to know: How hard it is to be a mother and see your child going down the wrong path and not being able to help him as much as you want to.”

“I want people these politicians to stop talking about ex-offender bills and prisoner re-entry and actually start developing programs that will provide them with the resources they need,” said Lewis.

“There needs to be a special committee that is in charge of job placement, housing and education for former in-mates. Otherwise, they are out to sea after they get out and have few options other than returning to the criminal life.”

Gladys Tapia is a 71-year-old, part-time teacher who is also frustrated with the criminal justice system.

The mother of five living children (one son died in 1995 from AIDS). Four of her children have been incarcerated on drug charges. She said that the system fails to actually rehabilitate offenders, choosing instead to focus on methods to keep criminals jailed.

“I would like to see some real traction be made on that proposed ex-offender bill by [Congo. Danny] Davis,” said Tapia, who has been raising her 15-year-old great-grandson Anthony Brown since his father, Anthony Sr., who is also Gladys’ grandson, was killed in 2000.

Tapia advocates for more governmental support for grandparents, such as herself, who are raising their grandchildren but receive no type of financial support. Foster parents, she points out, do receive financial assistance.

Along with her five children, Tapia has nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

She said that even the best parents can have a child who makes erroneous choices in life and knowing when and how to help are critical in aiding their rehabilitation.

“Knowing when to give tough love, when to pull away and what resources are available to them were vital in the recovery of my children, who served time,” she said, noting that all of her children are currently employed.