You take the car out at 8pm every night, because that’s when the prison doors clanged shut. You stare out at the stars ahead of you. The darkened sky with little specks of hope you haven’t seen in ten years.
You are the one with the keys, and you turn one in the ignition. You feel the motion of the car beneath you in the first glorious moment of remembering what it is to control movement not your own. You drive away, down roads no one knows you traverse.
You stop at a diner and remember the taste of real pie. Food someone has cared over. You drive slowly back, because there is no one to hurry you, and you surf the radio because no song can match this free feeling.
Home again, you go to sleep without setting an alarm, because you couldn’t sleep in in prison and you can’t find work now that you’re a criminal.
North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) works in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago to help those struggling to find work. Their work doesn’t stop when a person is hired–they help people not only prepare for but succeed at their jobs.
Their subsidiary, Sweet Beginnings, offers transitional jobs preparing honey and honey products. As their mission states “We believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to work!”
Listen to episode 193 below to hear more, or go to that episode.
Highlights from the episode:
Brenda Gardner: 57% of the adults within our community have had some involvement with the criminal justice system…and if you look at men by themselves, it really escalated up to about 80%.
Brenda Gardner: the unemployment rate right now is the lowest it’s been since 2008…the unemployment rate right now in North Lawndale is 23.4%…that prosperity hasn’t filtered into communities like ours.
Lauren Wesley: Once you’ve been institutionalized, that has to be deconstructed.
Lauren Wesley: You have to follow orders because otherwise you could lose your life or you could spend more time behind bars or you could be put in solitary confinement you learn how to follow rules in order to survive behind bars, and so the workplace is a lot different. People reward you for taking initiative. You get extra kudos if you’ve taken on a project on your own. You get promoted for those types of things, but when you’re used to falling in line you have to undo that.
Lauren Wesley: Being institutionalized is a mental health problem…it’s not like you come out and you’re like ‘okay I’m free.’ Freedom is not just a state of physical freedom; it’s mental freedom, and you don’t have that mental freedom when you’ve been locked up for ten or more years.
Lauren Wesley: The key is accessing resources. Whether it’s your grandmother, whether it’s friends, family, ’cause you need to have that support.
Lauren Wesley: It’s expensive to be poor.
Brenda Gardner: A flat tire on the road could be a catastrophic experience for somebody who’s in that low wage job and doesn’t have savings and can’t get to work and then potentially could lose their job or they get a warning and then there’s the stress that comes with the warning…it’s expensive to be poor not only financially but also mentally. There’s a stress involved there.
Brenda Gardner: Prison really is about stripping a person of their identity and of their self worth, and I think that what we do is, upon serving your time, we wanna help restore your sense of self worth. We want you to know that you are a valuable member of society.
Brenda Gardner: they tell stories about Men and women who’ve been released from prison and what their journey looks like and what a struggle it is…it’s that mental transition. It’s being in a car for the first time and feeling movement, and what does that feel like, or smelling baked bread for the first time, because you don’t get that so much.
Photo by Patrick Tomasso