Robert Wildeboer of Illinois Public Radio member station WBEZ has been reporting about and inside state prisons. Today, he introduces us to a certain point in the prison experience: the time when an inmate gets to leave.
Many inmates are not met at the prison gates by family or friends. Instead, they pack all their belongings into a small box or bag. Then, they’re given a train or bus ticket and ten dollars and sent out to become productive citizens.
Robert Wildeboer brings us this part of the prison story in Illinois:
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Every day white vans pull into the parking lot of the Amtrak station in Effingham, in southern Illinois.
Metal screens separate the driver from the passengers in the back, and the doors of the vans each have a small crest that says Illinois Department of Corrections.
On this day there are four vans at the station, two from Vandalia prison, and two from another nearby prison, Robinson.
The correctional officer parks at the north end of the parking lot, and almost two dozen, now former inmates, get out and listen quietly as he hands out train tickets and money.
Each inmate gets back the money he’s got in his commissary account.
But many don’t have any money in their accounts so they’re given 10 dollars.
All of the men are wearing prison-issued sweat suits that are exactly the same and most carry a large envelope or two with their release papers and other documents and most also have either a small bag or shoebox with all their belongings.
FREEMAN: A shirt. Sweater. You know, little simple stuff, you know.
Ryan Freeman was in Vandalia for a gun charge and is headed home to family in Englewood on Chicago’s South Side.
FREEMAN: Have to keep my Bibles you know, stay in contact with the Lord, you feel me, cause he’s the only one that got me through what I had to got through.
LAWHORN: I’m Terry Lawhorn from Kankakee, Illinois.
Like a lot of men just leaving prison, Lawhorn is carrying few possessions….but a lot of baggage.
Still…of all the men I talk to on this day, Lawhorn strikes me as the most likely to NOT return to prison.
He says this was his first time inside after dealing cocaine for 23 years without getting caught, but he says he’s learned his lesson.
LAWHORN: Really hurt my family a lot, kids probably hurt more than anything, a lot of embarrassment. It’s just something I wouldn’t want to take the family through again. So, it’s over for me. I mean I’ll leave it to the young guys who want to deal with all that. As long as I got a roof over my head, some food on my table, stick close to Jesus and I’ll live the rest of my life being content with that.
Everyone leaving prison says they’re done committing crimes, but of course that’s often not the case.
But Lawhorn has more going for him than most of the men waiting for the train.
He’s got a wife, two kids and perhaps most important given how hard it is for ex-felons to get hired– he owns a small business.
LAWHORN: Well I do landscaping and snow removal. I been doing it for 14 years in Kankakee. But I’ve got an opportunity to go to Roosevelt University in Chicago, they sent me some papers to apply so I’ll probably try to get in there.
WILDEBOER: You’ve got a plan all set up.
LAWHORN: Yeah, pretty much.
WILDEBOER: What do you think of some of these other guys that you look around? 50 percent of the people who come out of the department of corrections end up going back in. What’s the difference between someone who’s going to be fine on the outside verses someone who’s going to end up back in?
Another just-released inmate Chester Ryan heads into the train station because it’s cold out and the prison didn’t give any of the men coats, or even jackets.
RYAN: Feel how thin that is, you know? It’s a nice hoodie but you’re freezing and you’re a little cold out there, just jogging pants and a hoodie sweatshirt. I expected a jacket hopefully.
Ryan, like many others at the station, has all his earthly belongings in a large shoe box.
RYAN: This is what I own in this box. This is it.
Ryan is headed to Bloomington.
He hopes to hit up a church soon to get some clothes, including a jacket because he’s wearing all the clothes he has.
He’s got a friend who will put him up for two months but after that he’s afraid he’ll be going to shelters.
Ryan is a sex offender.
He was in prison for child pornography.
He says he’s going to look at the sex offender laws in all the states and move to wherever the rules are most lenient.
RYAN: It’s smarter to look at the rules for each state and say okay, which rules can you live with to stay out, to not go back to prison for a registry charge.
It’s not that Ryan wants to reoffend.
He just doesn’t want to end up back in prison for something like looking for work on a computer which could violate some rules against being online, that kind of thing.
RYAN: You know, I think they shoulda gave a person with one count of child pornography a second chance to say, hey, register for 10 years, 10,15 years instead of life. I think that’s a little harsh, life.
DUNLAP: My name is Dunlap and I’m from the West Side of Chicago. Going back to society again and I wanna just basically just give myself a chance, you know.
Perrin Dunlap just served 8 months.
It was his 8th time in prison.
He’s got burglary and theft charges but he says for him, it all goes back to one thing.
DUNLAP: Heroin. And they say people places and things but it wasn’t the case. It’s always something different, it was just, that you know, that desire, you know, that addiction is, you know, it’s poison you know, and I know it but, thought that I could still do it.
As the train rumbles toward the station the men in gray sweat suits make their way from the parking lot to the platform.
When the train stops a conductor comes out and tells the now freed prisoners to stay where they are.
He invites all the other people, families, couples, a small school group of some sort, all of them are invited on to the train first.
STEWART: See how they do us? That’s crazy. It be like that sometimes especially when you black though, you know what I’m saying?
The slight is pretty much the first thing to happen to these men upon release from prison, a less than encouraging welcome back to society.
Other than a few resigned murmurs, the men stay put and do as they’re told.
When they are allowed onto the train they all get seats, though the car is pretty full.
Perrin Dunlap looks out the window as the train cuts through flat fields of southern Illinois and talks about his next steps.
He says there is a Catholic Charities facility in Chicago that he’s hoping can help him out and he plans to get a link card so he can get something to eat.
He insists he’s not going back to prison a ninth time.
DUNLAP: I know in my heart I’m not about to go do anything. I already know that. I’m not trying to win you over, or promise you that, or trying to win, none of that. I know in my mind and my heart what I’m about to, what I’m about to go do now.
When Dunlap gets to Chicago he plans to walk from Union station to the Pacific Garden Mission shelter south of Roosevelt on Canal.
Like many of the other ex-felons on this train, Dunlap has just 10 dollars in his pocket.
Every year more than 33,000 men and women are released from Illinois prisons and make a similar journey facing similar odds.
That’s about 127 people every single weekday.
Robert Wildeboer, WBEZ.