The Chicago Police Department forces sex offenders to violate their parole. I know that sounds crazy. I thought it was crazy when I first heard about it, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two weeks with sex offenders waiting -- for hours and hours -- outside police headquarters and watching a Kafkaesque process play out.
Every morning sex offenders start lining up at 6, while it’s still dark out, sometimes even earlier than that, and I probably don’t have to remind you how cold it’s been this winter. Tracy Wright was one of a couple dozen men on a recent morning.
“It’s freezing out here,” said Wright. “Man, I had frost bites today. Somebody gave me some gloves to put on my hands.”
It’s often like this, with the men stomping their feet on the cold concrete, trying to stay warm. For some reason, there’s no waiting room. A small vestibule acts as a makeshift waiting room but there are 20 guys stuck outside. By 10:30 a.m. all of the men are cold and frustrated. “I been here since 7 o’clock waiting in line trying to see these people to keep me from being locked up,” said Wright.
On this morning an ambulance was called for one of the men because he had numbness in his feet. After that, the men were allowed to wait in the main lobby of police headquarters but that’s the exception to the rule.
People convicted as sex offenders have to register once a year. It basically means they have to go to the police department registration office and update their personal info and show proof of their current address. And if they move, they have to go back to re-register within three days. If they enroll in school they have to re-register within three days. If they change jobs they have to re-register within three days.
There are a lot of requirements and in Chicago, and they can be nearly impossible to meet, not because the offenders don’t want to meet them but because of the way the Chicago Police Department runs the registration office.
When I met Wright in line it was his third time trying to get in the office to register. “Every time we come here they have us standing in this line out here in this cold,” he said.
Wright was turned away the other two days because the office doesn’t have the capacity to process all the sex offenders who show up to register, and Wright’s worried the same thing is going to happen again. “At 12 o’clock they’ll cut the line, they’ll stop the line and tell us to come back tomorrow but I been standing out here already four to five hours,” said Wright.
Go home, but you can still be arrested
Sure enough, an hour later, at 11:45 a.m., a man comes out of the registry office and tells Wright and the two dozen other men who have been waiting in the cold all morning, that they won’t be able to register today. But then it gets weirder. The police department employee tells the men they can sign a list that will prove they showed up today to register but then he tells them that even if they’re on the list, they can still be arrested for failing to register.
In a written statement, Adam Collins, a spokesman for the Chicago Police, said the list is collected and the department “proactively sends their names to Illinois State Police … to minimize any potential criminal registration problems for the individuals.”
Of course letting the men actually register would be an even more effective way to minimize registration problems. For clarity, I asked Collins several times, aren’t the men at risk of being arrested? He simply resent a portion of his written statement.
For the offenders being turned away every day -- sometimes 10, 20, or even more of them -- the message they’re getting is that the department prefers to risk their arrest rather than process this paperwork more quickly.
Violating registration rules can mean prison
The men are nervous and they have good reason. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections there are currently 841 people in prison for violating registration requirements.
“You know, I think we’re caught up in the machine,” said Terry as he walked away from police headquarters after being told he wouldn’t be able to register. Terry didn’t want to give his last name. He says he’s trying to fulfill the registration requirements and get on with his life, which includes a job in sales that he’s missing so he can stand in line. “We’re the guys that are trying to do the right thing. We’re showing up here, we’re trying to do the right thing we’re trying to follow the law to the letter of what’s on that piece of paper and they turn us away and say sorry, but you can still be arrested. Yeah, well, how are we supposed to feel?” he asked.
After most of the men have left William White is still sitting in his wheel chair outside the registry office. I saw him arrive before noon but that was too late and now he’s locked outside in the cold in a T-shirt and a light jacket. He has one leg. Because of that he had to get a ride from his brother Reggie and he’s waiting for his brother to pick him up. When Reggie shows up he can’t believe his brother couldn’t register because there’s a sign on the locked door that says the office is open till 3.
“It’s not even one o’clock yet! Five minutes to one,” said White.
“This is horrible. It’s like they’re purposely setting people up to be violated to go back to jail. You can’t conclude nothing else but that. And they came out, they didn’t even have any sympathy, his limb is missing. They didn’t even care, you know? So they won’t even see you or anything, won’t register you or nothing. They told him to come back Tuesday but I have to work and I won’t be able to bring him Tuesday,” said White.
In a written statement police spokesman Adam Collins insisted the office is open standard business hours. That’s not what I saw. In fact while I talk to Reggie White and his brother a young man walks up and pulls on the locked door. White shouts over to him, “They not taking anybody else.”
After a short conversation the young man walks away mystified and angry. I saw a lot of men arrive in the afternoon, when the office is advertised as being open. They all found a locked door and got no explanation.
Increased registration, says CPD
CPD spokesman Collins says there’s been an increase in registrations in the last two years. He says they’ve detailed additional officers to the criminal registration section and they are in the planning stage of an expansion of the office to accommodate additional personnel, but he didn’t provide any details about a timeline despite our request. He also didn’t answer questions on whether there are plans for a waiting room.
The whole process is especially frustrating for men who have jobs and are trying to keep their lives on track, like Byron Williams. He says he’s shown up to this office 8 or 9 times in the last couple weeks, a not uncommon story. Williams is a security guard and his boss is letting him work the night shift right now so he can stand in line during the day, but he doesn’t get off the night shift till 6 a.m. so he’s not getting in line early enough. He hasn’t been able to register.
“My boss is like, okay you need to make something happen, but every time I get up to close by they cut it off and say we can’t register, you got to come back the next day. I’m explaining that to my boss and he’s understanding but he’s not understanding and I’m at risk of losing my job and you know how hard it is for a sex offender to find a job?” said Williams.
Given the weather at the end of last week, Williams decided he wasn’t going to stand out in the cold again and waste his time. However, Monday is his last day to register before he’s in violation. He says he’ll be in line again, to give it another try.