A 36-year-old man walked out of an Illinois prison last May in a pair of joggers and a T-shirt.
Coming off a 10-year prison sentence, he had no money. He had nothing but the joggers and a T-shirt.
But the man, who asked only to be identified as Richard, heard about the Jobs Partnership Program at the Joy Care Center in Bloomington, Ill., a program that assists mostly ex-incarcerees with finding jobs, housing and essential items like clothing and food.
The organization is volunteer- and faith-based, and it’s solely operated by donations. Clients connect whenever they wish at their “home” — a basement floor apartment in south Bloomington with a sign reading “Joy Care Center” hanging from the wide-open front door.
“Let go of what was,” is painted on the main room wall alongside a blue, green and pink dragonfly. “Accept what is. Have faith in what will be,” is painted on the other side of the dragonfly.
The Pantagraph spoke to four members of the Joy Care Center in April, to mark Second Chance Month, a national effort started in 2017 by the nonprofit Prison Fellowship, to raise awareness of the challenges people with a criminal record face.
They asked not to be identified by their full names because of concerns about public scrutiny and the safety of their families.
While all the former incarcerees credited the program with helping them turn their lives around and get good jobs, they (and the program’s director, Michelle Cook) were surprised to hear that a recent report ranked Illinois first in the nation in re-integrating ex-incarcerees into society.
“If we’re Number 1, it must be really bad for other states, because it’s rough enough here in Illinois,” Cook said.
“But having said that, there are resources; it’s just more of the public attitude toward folks coming home. That just shows you how far behind we are as a country for this particular population.”
‘A Long Way to Go’
An author of the recent report that examined all 50 states’ restorative rights laws mirrored Cook’s point.
“There is still a long way to go before people with a record are treated fairly in getting a job and supporting a family, securing a place to live, and participating fully in civic affairs,” wrote Collateral Consequences Resource Center Executive Director Margaret Love.
The report, released in early March by the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center, studied laws aimed at restoring rights after incarceration, such as voting rights, felony and misdemeanor relief, non-conviction relief, and abilities to obtain employment and occupational licensing. It ranked Illinois as No. 1 for the second year in a row.
The report comes as the state’s Prisoner Review Board has become caught up in political gridlock, forcing the indefinite postponement of clemency hearings. The board now has just six seated members of a 15-member board, and three of those members still need state Senate approval.
That left the agency unable to meet a quorum to conduct its quarterly clemency hearings this month.
The state’s top ranking shocked clients of Joy Care Center who have experienced the challenges of re-entry.
Joy Care Center consists of a 12-week class session that provides services to “empower participants to improve personal and work place performance, change attitudes, and build a firm foundation for a positive, successful future,” its website states.
Members are paired with a mentor, who is “someone from the community with a caring heart that wants to help them,” Cook said. They’re also paired with an accountability partner, someone with a similar past who also has been in the program.
There are about 40 people active in the program and more than 80 others are on a waiting list to be admitted.
About 2,500 people have gone through the program. Since 2010, when the Jobs Partnership started, 21 members have returned to prison, Cook said.
Joy Care Center partners with more than 70 employers and several landlords and real estate agents who accept its clients. The program also helps clients to expunge or seal criminal records.
The organization is one of many within the McLean County Reentry Council, which formed in early 2021 after a group of organizations, including the Fully Free Campaign, came together to address how to connect people coming home from incarceration with resources in the community.
“We’re about breaking barriers for the formerly incarcerated by providing resources and educating the community about what reentry is,” said Toy Beasley, a community advocate and founding member of the council.
“We want to make the community aware that these are not bad people, these are people who are dealing with trauma in the past.”
A Rotating Door
Richard, the 36-year-old Bloomington man who ended his 10-year prison sentence last May, grew up in Chicago. He said that since he was young, “I was on the streets and that’s all I knew … Without (Joy Care Center), I don’t know if I’d still be out right now because the life I lived, it was just a rotating door, always in and out.”
He added that Cook “loves us like we’re her kids.”
In fact, they call each other family. Members call Cook “Momma” or “Momma Michelle,” and in turn, Cook, 80, calls the members her children.
“We are a family. We love each other as a family. Family is not 9 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.), Monday through Friday,” Cook said, referring to other re-entry programs.
“A family is 24/7, 365. It takes a 24/7, 365 commitment. Emergencies don’t happen just 9 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.), Monday through Friday.”
Mina, 52, of Normal, Ill., has gone full circle in the program. She joined about nine years ago after spending a week in the McLean County jail on bond for a felony.
Since then, she has worked a couple of jobs and is now an accountability partner for the program, helping current members to navigate hurdles that people with a criminal record face.
“We want to do new hurdles, which means future, bigger prospective goals to reach,” said Mina, whose felony record has been expunged. “Those are the great hurdles we want to jump instead of having somebody with their foot on our neck saying, ‘You’re always going to be a convict.’”
Mina, along with David, 55, of Towanda, Ill., shared similar stories. They each now hold commercial driver’s licenses and drive trucks.
David, who spent a total of 19 years in prison between two sentences, said still faces obstacles despite the program’s support and despite expunging part of his record. But without the Joy Care program, David doesn’t think he would be where he is today.
“Most jobs kids get coming out of high school is what they want to give us, so it’s hard to get a prevailing wage job,” he said. “It’s something that’s not going to make you a millionaire, but it’s going to give you a life that’s a little bit more comfortable.”
Kade Heather, a staff writer for The Pantagraph, is a 2022 John Jay/Quattrone Justice Reporting Fellow. This story was originally published in the Pantagraph and is reproduced with permission in The Crime Report as part of his fellowship project.