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Prison after prison: Advocates seek to remove barriers for the formerly incarcerated

Toy Beasley is a member of the Fully Free campaign
Courtesy / Toy Beasley
Toy Beasley is a member of the Fully Free campaign.
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A coalition of advocates have launched a campaign to dismantle systems they say lead to “permanent punishment” for people that have formerly been incarcerated.

Marlon Chamberlain of the Fully Free Campaign knows what it’s like to be subjected continued punishment after a prison term has been served. Asked to chaperone his son’s class on a field trip to a bowling alley, he was denied the chance when a background check turned up his decades-old conviction.

“Imagine being on a yellow bus with my son and being in the bowling alley with the little guarding rails and helping him bowl,” Chamberlain said. He was asked to chaperone by his son’s teachers, Chamberlain said, because they knew how involved he was in his son’s education. But because of his record, both Chamberlain and his child were denied the experience.

Chamberlain said each year, thousands of Illinoisans are released from incarceration and “basically told to rebuild their lives.” But in many cases, he said, those people are returning to underserved communities where resources are scarce. On top of that, he said, there are “hundreds of laws” that limit access to those resources that do exist.

Chamberlain said formerly incarcerated people in Illinois can legally be denied access to housing, education, and employment.

“I would say these laws intentionally deny us opportunities and they create this prison after the prison,” he said.

Part of the problem is a lack of awareness in the broader community about the obstacles faced by the formerly incarcerated, said Toy Beasley. Beasley helped found the McLean County Re-entry Council, an organization that assists people with reintegrating into the community after being released from prison. Beasley is familiar with their struggle, having been through it himself when he was released from prison over 20 years ago.

“I want to be a voice for the voiceless. There’s a lot of individuals in the McLean County area that don’t have a voice,” Beasley said, adding that there’s simply not enough conversation happening in the community about the challenges people face when coming home from prison.

“Re-entry don’t exist here in McLean County. It’s not talked about,” Beasley said. “We need to bring people to the table.”

One of the largest obstacles to re-entry is employment. Employers often refuse to hire people based on past criminal convictions – even when those convictions are decades-old.

Ann Thomas of Bloomington was released from prison over 25 years ago. She still struggles to find work in her field of expertise, meaning she often has to take multiple, lesser jobs to make ends meet. At one point, she was working a full-time job plus two part-time jobs in order to put her daughter through college.

“I’m 53 years old now. My body can’t take that,” Thomas said. But because of her record, she’s unable to get the kind of better-paying job that she’s qualified to perform. Thomas said it’s time employers start taking a second look at hiring policies that automatically rule out candidates with past convictions.

“I’m not who I used to be. I’m a completely different person now,” Thomas said. “I will work very hard for any person or company that will put their trust in me.”

The Fully Free Campaign is hosting an event in Bloomington on Saturday, Oct. 9, to connect people impacted by incarceration with community resources, including employers. It will be held from 12–3 p.m. at Miller Park.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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