By Richard Muhammad

CHICAGO ( – Ex-offenders, their family members and Chicago-area groups tackling employment and other ex-offender issues will gather Dec. 2 at the Salaam Restaurant to voice concerns, hear about ongoing work by individuals and organizations, and discuss ways to effectively organize to overcome persistent challenges to successful re-entry.

The forum is sponsored by Prison Reform Inc. and its executive director, Minister Abdullah Muhammad. Prison Reform Inc. is a not-for-profit devoted to serving inmates behind bars and when they leave. One of the forum’s goals is to raise awareness, develop grassroots leadership and produce spokespersons from among ex-offenders, explained Min. Abdullah.

“We need to raise the consciousness of ex-offenders and make them understand they have a responsibility to raise the consciousness of others like them,” he said.


Organizers also hope participants and groups will discuss building a common agenda and ways to protect ex-offenders from discrimination often faced in employment, and even voting in some areas of the country. (Illinois does not strip ex-felons of voting rights.) The forum will highlight stories of determination and creative approaches to deal with problems faced by ex-offenders, or who some prefer to call “new citizens.”

Ex-offenders seek solutions

Melvin Bailey started out with a simple idea: Black men, particularly those who had served jail time, should be able to find employment in their own neighborhoods. Watching others work, while frustrated Brothers stood on street corners wasn’t a scenario he was willing to accept. Mr. Bailey and others protested the lack of jobs and opportunity and directly confronted the problem.

In four years, he and the Community Male Empowerment Project have gone from demanding jobs to creating jobs. The group is looking to provide employment to ex-offenders as the non-profit builds affordable housing on the west side of the city. The project, which consists of constructing 10 two-flat apartments, broke ground in November. Among its requirements is that the general contractor give training and jobs to ex-offenders, pointed out Mr. Bailey, director of the Community Male Empowerment Project.

Mr. Bailey, who has served time in prison, and other community activists around the country want to stop the revolving door that brings Blacks in and out of the criminal justice system.

The prison population in America has reached 2.2 million people, counting populations in federal and state prisons and local jails, with some 650,000 people coming out of prison each year. The Sentencing Project reports that one in eight Black males aged 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2005 as were one in 26 Latino males, and one in 59 White males in the same age group.

According to the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, Illinois released 30,068 inmates from its prisons in 2001, “157 percent above the 11,715 prisoners returned to society in 1983.”

“Fifty-two percent of the ex-prisoners went to Chicago. Six economically and socially disadvantaged Chicago areas–Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Englewood, West Englewood and East Garfield Park–accounted for 34 percent of the prisoners returning to the city, with each area receiving 412 to 1,681 prisoners. Aside from Cook County, home to Chicago, no other county received more than three percent of those released,” according, to “A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Illinois,” a Justice Policy Center report put out in 2003.

“The return of so many prisoners to a handful of Chicago communities is only half the story,” said Urban Institute researcher Nancy La Vigne, when the report was released. “The other half is the high rate of people being sent or returned to prison who come from these communities. This cycling in and out of prison can have significant and costly social and economic impacts on the residents in these neighborhoods.”

“It’s going to take everybody to solve this problem,” said Melvin Haywood, who works with Chicago’s Safer Foundation. Mr. Haywood, who served 30 years in prison, helps young men move forward after incarceration. He acts as a job coach by helping with resumes, and giving tips on interviewing, grooming, punctuality and other things needed to get and keep a job.

Xavier Williams started as an outreach worker for Ceasefire, a violence prevention program, and went on to develop an employment assistance program and craft a partnership between Ceasefire and the Safer Foundation. He managed a program that tracked how his clients did with job skills and employment. He believes sustainable jobs are important, and notes that nearly half of his clients have opted to work for commercial drivers licenses, looking to build long-term careers.

His contract for the Ceasefire-Safer partnership will soon expire and he is on track to complete his master’s degree by next summer. He served 20 years in prison and has been home for three-and-a-half years.

The 35-year-old doesn’t consider himself an expert, but did offer some ideas on how to improve things. Better training for outreach workers that provide direct services, more conscientious and sincere staffers at service agencies and less focus on who will lead the movement are needed, he said.

Mr. Williams strongly believes in better training for frontline workers, who are often ex-offenders themselves. Offering certifiable training, in areas like conflict resolution and case management, would mean greater career choices for outreach workers, he noted. Better training would also allow organizations to improve the odds of helping people, Mr. Williams said.

Ex-offenders need to be involved at every level, when it comes to things that affect their lives, better coordination between groups and less focus on leadership roles would also help, he added.

“That’s the hardest thing, getting Black people on one page,” Mr. Williams said.

Min. Abdullah believes ex-offenders have to step forward and represent their own interests. Those who are supposed to serve ex-offenders often lack the compassion and ability to tolerate people who have been destroyed, and “herded like sheep into the criminal justice system,” he stressed.

The Muslim minister wants to connect the ex-offenders with the Millions More Movement, as part of broader efforts to address problems faced by Blacks, Latinos and poor Whites.

“We need to get up as ex-offenders and produce a powerful force for lobbying and writing legislation,” he added. “We want ex-offenders to be politically active and we plan to build a national and international ex-offender tsunami.”