Just as years of lobbying, protesting and policymaking are beginning to bring new chances for prisoners returning to society, Trump administration measures threaten to lock more people up.
That was the word from Anthony Lowery, Director of Policy and Advocacy for Safer Foundation, the featured speaker at the Nov. 16 monthly meeting of the Community Support Advisory Councils (CSAC).
The CSAC was developed by the Illinois Department of Corrections to "work collaboratively with parole and other existing community resources to develop wraparound services for parolees, while assisting other groups with building community capacity to develop their own resources," according to its website.
Lowery told the meeting at the Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center, 2942 W. Lake St., to be prepared to push back. He urged returning prisoners to take advantages of programs to readjust and find jobs and housing.
"We must change the image of what people think we are," said Lowery, adding that men from three generations in his own family have been in prison. Safer Foundation, which for years has provided direct services, is taking a more active policy role these days as other agencies have stepped in to serve returning citizens.
Lowery urged people to register, vote and keep coming to public meetings.
"Those with the most to gain and the most to lose need to be leaders in the movement," he said. "We've got 84,000 health care jobs coming to the Chicago area — why can't we get some of them?"
He pointed out the newest political advances for those getting out of prison. They include a law, effective Jan. 1, 2018, that allows prisoners scheduled to be released to start training for jobs while still in prison.
Barber license courses and others are offered, ready for work upon release. Safer is offering training for specific industrial jobs paying $20 an hour at two work-release centers. They also coach returning prisoners in getting ready for employment and living in society.
There are also new certifications designed to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders. Lowery pointed out that only 4 to 6 percent of returning prisoners have been convicted of a violent crime.
Another advancement, the sealing of records for most convictions, can be done soon after parole is completed. Sealing hides a prisoner's convictions from public view, including private background checks for employers or landlords.
The records can still be seen by law enforcement agencies and entities that conduct fingerprint security checks. Court petitions are still required, and Cabrini Green Legal Aid offices provide assistance. Federal convictions, as yet, have no opportunity for sealing, Lowery said.
Cook County has torn down several jail buildings, reducing its jail population from 10,000 down to around 6,500, Lowery reported. Bail-bond reforms and anti-incarceration actions by new Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, and groups like First Defense Legal Aid, which newly-arrested people can call to get immediate legal help, are helping to keep more people from entering jail.
Mary Johnson, field director of Illinois Prison Fellowship, said the fellowship helps prisoners prepare for healthy reintegration with life-skill classes, mentors, and access to local community resources. Other agencies that offer help for returning prisoners that were present at the Nov. 16 meeting include the West Side Health Authority, located at 5816 W. Division St., which offers many re-entry services including counseling, health screenings, job readiness and placement, hygiene kits, GED courses.
TASC holds a re-entry circle support group each Saturday, from 10 a.m. to noon at Sankofa Art & Cultural Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave. Contact Bennie Lee at (773) 593-2540.
Lowery urges ex-offenders to take control of their own lives: "Now free, we must make that commitment to stay free, on a daily basis."
For more information related to prisoner reentry support services, contact Lowery at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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