“Growing up in Humboldt Park, especially back in them days, back then as now, gang recruitment was so easy. The gangs would drive on kids like me. They knew my father had passed away. We lived in the neighborhood. My mom didn’t have money, so once my dad passed, they latched on to me. ‘We’ll take care of you. We’ll be your family.’ Kids were vulnerable.”
Jacques arrived to the security area of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on a Saturday afternoon wearing gray-on-gray sweatpants and short sleeves. This and other track suits were his usual garb when he wasn’t suited in a delivery work uniform or free Northwestern University swag.
For a few months, he had been mentoring young boys – some young men – in juvenile detention. The kids were waiting to appear in court.
Jacques joined a team of three other mentors, some with rough pasts of their own. Together, they would visit kids from one unit at the detention center.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
Clearing security took about 45 minutes after a mix-up over visitation dates. As they waited, Jacques told the other guys about his new ride, fresh bullet-holes and all.
“That’s what you get for buying a new car!” the group leader, laughed.
“I didn’t want to get a new car without a garage,” Jacques told them, shaking his head.
Security officers filtered through their program supplies piece by piece.
“What’s the blanket for?” one officer asked.
“To bring them the comforts of home!” Jacques jested, turning his head so the officer couldn’t hear him.
In fact, the small quilted baby blanket would be put in the center of the group as they discussed a theme in a circle. Nothing they talked about was meant to leave the circle of trust. They taught the boys to respect this code.
Huddled in the security area, the mentors went over the game plan for the day. The theme of the day would be domestic violence, focusing on treatment of women and children. In the past, they had covered values, gangs and race. They often talked about doing the time and celebrating a second chance.
Jacques and the mentors signed in, went through the metal detector and headed over to the unit of about 16 boys they’d be working with that day. The hallways looked more like a middle school than a detention center. Inspirational quotes and pictures adorned the walls.
Inside the dim, brick-walled meeting room, the boys sat on plastic chairs in rows facing the front of the room supervised by three security guards. They all wore long-sleeved navy blue “JTDC” shirts and gray pants with rubber shoes.
They seemed full of energy, ready to burst. Their unit had a month of peace – no fights – and the boys found out they would be rewarded with a party and food catered from the outside.
One of the mentors asked the kids to help set up the room, and they all stopped in their tracks to arrange the chairs in a circle.
A ball bounced in sight, and soon the group was running and playing an icebreaker game of “Presidents and Assassins,” a variation of dodge ball.
“Move the ball! Move the ball!”
“Y’all gotta jump for it! Make it easy.”
“Spread out!” Jacques shouted, getting in the game. “Gotta take a shot sometime!”
The kids hurried to corner Jacques and eliminate him from the game. Out of breath and beaming, he took a seat at the side of the room by the group leader who was preparing materials.
After the game, the boys circled up and were invited to share the latest “rose and thorn” stories in their lives, the high points and low points, passing a secret object for each to hold when it was his turn to speak.
The mentors handed out Bic pens and sheets of song lyrics. At key moments in the discussion, they took the opportunity to reflect on the theme of the day by playing popular songs. The kids underlined the words that spoke to them, moving to the beat. Jacques tapped his foot.
He shared his own story, flashbacks, snippets of pain and regrets. The boys raised their eyebrows and looked at each other as Jacques spoke. He was both a cautionary tale and a source of inspiration. His past was familiar to them – a future they didn’t want. But he was proof that it was possible to start over.
In the lobby area after the session concluded, the leaders gathered their personal belongings from the lockers. They huddled once more and went over what went well, who was engaged and what they could have done better. For next time.
They scanned through the program curriculum and realized they hadn’t managed to hit all the points because they allowed more time for the kids to talk about their wishes for the future.
Freedom. Beating their case. Going home. Taking care of their families. Moving out of the country and living happily ever after. Disappearing. Leaving the hood. Stopping the violence.