In 2006, Nelton Edwards and his girlfriend had a nasty breakup in front of her Austin home. She threw his clothes outside, and Edwards did something he would soon regret.
“When she threw my clothes out I was too angry and stupid at the time to just grab them up, put them in the car and go,” Edwards said. "So I burned them up.”
Edwards, 57, served five years for aggravated arson and is now out on parole.
“The system is kind of unforgiving. Once you have did your time and supposedly paid your debt to society, it’s almost like society doesn’t forgive you,” Edwards said.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
The Austin neighborhood, where Edwards grew up, has 21 percent unemployment – and a large population of people with criminal records. For some, where you live can have a profound impact on how your life turns out.
WBEZ analyzed 2012 data from the Illinois Department of Corrections, and found that thousands of adults return to just a handful of Chicago zip codes after they get out of prison. For example, four West Side zip codes – 60651, 60644, 60624 and 60612 – had more than 2,400 parolees return in that one year alone.
Many of these neighborhoods already have high rates of violence, unemployment and poverty. The large number of parolees living there becomes a collective burden increasingly hard to bear.
It’s hard enough to find a job without a criminal record
On a recent morning, a small group of job seekers fills out paperwork at the Westside Health Authority while community organizer Charles Perry gives them a pep talk.
“If they can get you lined up for an interview, your record isn’t an issue. It’s just you selling yourself when you get to the job,” said Perry, who helps match up his clients with employers.
Perry once did time in the federal penitentiary on a drug conviction; he understands the devastating effects of post-incarceration better than most.
“The impact is great when you come back to a community where when you look and you can go through Austin and you see very few shops open. There’s very few opportunities for men and women coming home as opposed to a community that’s vibrant, that’s growing where there’s employment, new businesses coming in. You have communities like Austin, Englewood, Roseland, that’s not happening,” Perry said.
Yet those are the very neighborhoods that have the highest numbers of parolees.
As the prison population continues to grow that means more parolees looking for work in competition with others who have criminal records. In many of these neighborhoods, it’s hard enough to find a job without a criminal record.
The generational cycle of incarceration in largely African-American neighborhoods can breed hopelessness among its residents.
Back in the old neighborhood, resisting illegal activity around him
Tristan Flowers, 25, lives in his grandmother’s gray frame house in Austin. It looks like a grandmother’s house with framed pictures of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela hanging on the walls.
Flowers got out of prison last month after serving 18 months for selling narcotics – a charge he denies.
But Flowers sheepishly admits he has sold drugs in the past.
“I can’t lie and say I haven’t. But the case I just got out on wasn’t mine,” he said.
Flowers says his drug selling got him in trouble as far back as high school when he was expelled. But he learned a few lessons and eventually picked up some plumbing and carpentry skills.
In his grandmother’s kitchen where he installed the laminate tiles, Flowers reviews a list of companies who hire people with criminal records. He wants to be working by springtime and has practiced his pitch to employers.
“Don’t let my past alter my future. He should be able to take that,” Flowers says referring to a hypothetical hiring manager. He continued: “I’ll shoot a little smile at him or whatever the case may be and work my number with him.”
Flowers’ tenacity may pay off. But he said a number of his friends and family are still involved in illegal activity in Austin.
Feeling trapped, parolees speak frankly about ways to cope
“There’s limited to no opportunities in these communities. Employers don’t want to come to these communities because of the fear of violence,” said Anthony Lowery, the policy and advocacy director at the Safer Foundation. The nonprofit works with people who have been convicted of felonies.
“The thing that I see as far as a person who lives in Englewood when I come out of my house in the morning, there may be two other men on the block who are working legal, gainful employment.”
Lowery said schoolchildren don’t see enough adults, especially men, going off to work.
“But when they come back from school in the afternoon, they see the corners crowded with men with illegal activity, drug sales,” he said.
That kind of environment can be toxic and add stress to the community as a whole. So even those who don’t have a prison experience are affected by the returning parolees.
Lynn Todman conducted mental health impact assessments on job-seekers with criminal records the Adler School of Professional Psychology and found anxiety, depression and low self esteem.
“When you have large number of people with no hope of kind of integrating back into society because of their records, some people out of desperation will engage in activities that create fear throughout the community. Sometimes that means selling drugs, sometimes that means burglaries. That exacerbates or amplifies the levels of anxiety and stress in communities,” Todman said.
The researcher said she learned something else with her Englewood focus group, but warns “it’s a very dangerous comment to put out there publicly.”
After a bit of hesitation, Todman reveals that some men talked about one coping strategy in particular.
“Sex,” she said. “That in a world where there’s constant rejection and their self esteem is compromised constantly, they’re always seeking ways of self soothing. Drugs is one. Alcohol is another. Sex is another. And they linked this to unwanted pregnancies and STDs in the community.”
Todman is quick to add that this doesn’t justify stereotypes of the hypersexualied black male. It’s far from pathological behavior, she said. Other research shows sex can be a human coping mechanism for lots of people – including white middle-class men.
But the honesty of Todman’s focus group underscores the ripple effect of joblessness and incarceration. Worse yet, many parolees suffer from poverty and can’t afford to move out of their familiar neighborhoods.
But for those who do, there is hope.
Moving to a new neighborhood to escape his past
Nelton Edwards, the guy who went to prison for burning his clothes, is feeling good these days. He works at a suburban manufacturing plant. He left his drug use behind. And perhaps, most importantly, he doesn’t live in Austin.
“Yes, that was deliberate, that I never went back to the West Side. I don’t care to live on the West Side of Chicago,” Edwards said.
He had to move on.
“My friends were over there they were getting high. We gambled, shoot pool, go partying. That was what I did. I started changing my life. I was getting away from that because it is people, places and things,” Edwards said.
Edwards now rents an apartment in an affordable housing mid rise in the South Loop. The area’s bustling with lots of retail, transportation and food amenities.
Opportunity he didn’t have in his segregated neighborhood.
This map reflects 2012 adult parolee Chicago zip code data from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
* Note: 60608 has a high number, partly because it’s the zip code for Cook County Jail. These particular parolees are arrested on new crimes and sent to Cook County Jail, which then becomes their new address—pending outcome of the new cases. They have not been convicted and returned to IDOC, so they remain “parolees” on the IDOC list.
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