‘Provide The Infrastructure And Magic Happens’: A Holistic Approach To Reducing Recidivism

green reentry
Julius Allen / IMAN Central
green reentry
Julius Allen / IMAN Central

‘Provide The Infrastructure And Magic Happens’: A Holistic Approach To Reducing Recidivism

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In Illinois, more than 40,000 people are held in the state’s prisons. And many are likely to return. Across the country, the recidivism rate is about 37%. In Illinois, it’s a bit higher — around 40%.

There are many efforts focused on reducing recidivism in the state. Here in Chicago, those efforts include everything from job training to education to mentorship programs.

But the folks behind a South Side program called Green ReEntry say a more holistic approach is needed to help people reintegrate when they leave prison. The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), the organization behind the Green ReEntry Program, says it focuses on “health, wellness and healing” as a way to break the cycle of violence and recidivism on the city’s South Side.

Morning Shift’s Jenn White sat down with IMAN’s Shamar Hemphill, associate director of Strategy and Organizing, for more on the Green ReEntry program.

Taking a holistic approach to curbing violence and recidivism

Jenn White: Talk about what Green ReEntry is and how this program got started.

Shamar Hemphill: Green Reentry is a program that has been around for almost a decade and really has looked at the family, first and foremost. Taking men who are returning back home [who] really didn’t have any way of reacclimating. Most of these guys never had a first chance in the first place — a real first chance.

So IMAN sought to really address [the need] for living quarters, all the way to job training, education, and mentorship. And right around that time — in 2007, 2008 — we had one of the hardest-hit foreclosure crises happen in the 60629 zip code. So half the blocks were boarded up, unstable, gang-infested, ravaged by foreclosure.

What we were able to do was say, “Hey, listen. What if we took these brothers, small cohorts of five to seven, and trained them up in electric carpentry and HVAC, and train them on-site in class and begin to take over these spaces and make them stable? And then, [for] the brothers who are living in the transitional homes, we can make these rental properties: low-rental costs where they can begin to move their wives and their families into. And then [get] on trajectory to become homeowners.

White: And the program has grown since then.

Hemphill: Oh tremendously. So a population of young people that we’ve been mobilizing since the inception of the organization is 18-24 [year olds], those who are caught up in the cycle disconnected from school, dropping out. They don’t really have any other meaningful avenues. IMAN has always been an anchor for that. One of the things — because public safety and violence are continuous being at our doorstep — we started to do was to infuse both the population coming home on the back-end and really try to deal with this on the front-end. So now we have intergenerational cohorts that allow both organic mentorship in the program (12-18 months) really going through the training. And now we have a cohort size of 45.

White: It sounds like what you’re trying to do is build — or perhaps, more accurately — repair an ecosystem?

Hemphill: Without a doubt. Both from the person to the buildings in the neighborhoods and the infrastructure. What’s unique about our program is not only is this about a program for training and mentorship and education, but we’re really developing these neighborhoods directly from the inside. So we’re taking the people who live in the community, who are being trained, and actually reclaiming these spaces. And it takes a holistic effort.

The Green ReEntry Program expands its efforts on the South Side

White: I understand that up until now Green ReEntry has served men, but you’re launching another branch of the program, including a summer-intensive called Weekend Warriors.

Hemphill: Weekend Warriors comes out of our outreach efforts and the fact that we have a waiting list of over 200 people. We took on the initiative and approach saying … let’s pilot this: a weekend program that partners with the Chicago City Colleges and Daley College, have these young men and some older men — over the span of Friday to Sunday, morning to night — learning welding, doing life skills, getting college credits while they’re doing it over an intense period over the summer. It’s a way to really kind of take these men and keep them off the streets, keep them busy, but also reacclimate them back to school and really think about a trajectory for themselves.

White: What about the women extension of this program?

Hemphill: Historically, we have had a lot of women in our programs. We just have to address a different set of needs in certain circumstances, but at the same time, really understanding that there needed to be the same type of spaces. Some of these women … are some of the fiances and girlfriends of the same men in the same program. And now, creating a space for a real kind of intensive life-skill accreditation, going through the process of 16 weeks, getting the type of behavioral health, getting the type of space to be able to afford them [the chance] to think about the trades and job opportunities.

[Some of the women participants say] “I need housing or childcare. I need these types of services. I need more than just a program.” So how do you fully support that? And so that’s why we [first] really wanted to perfect the program and really address what was at our doorstep. But we knew at some point that we had to really kind of begin to create the space for women leaders.

White: Tell us about what happens — not just in the neighborhood that you’re working to stabilize, but in the surrounding neighborhoods — when this program works the way you hope it does.

Hemphill: It creates hope. First of all, [Green ReEntry] is a model. It lends itself to a different approach to really thinking about the issue. Even in the neighborhoods, people are looking forward and saying, “Hey, come on our block. We want you to come on our block. Because we feel much safer, we feel stabilized, when the brothers are on our block.”

And now, being able to provide the spaces for the sisters — I think what it does is say, “Hey, listen, bring in my brother, bring in my sister.”

People are seeing that if this can be a mechanism for real kind of infrastructure-building and sustainability in our communities, then this is a win-win.

‘The source and strength of our neighborhoods are the people’

White: It also sounds like it’s about changing the stigma around [people returning from prison].

Hemphill: Absolutely. The beautiful thing in this work, which you really get a chance to see, is people are not what you read. People are not what you hear. We always talk about being approximate to people’s stories and really understanding who they are and the full person, and the idea that they make the magic happen. You provide the infrastructure, and the magic happens. We have talent in our neighborhoods. The source and strength of our neighborhoods are the people.

So if you don’t provide any type of avenue or vehicle for people to be able to get those talents out, then you’ll continue to feed into the stigma that continues to plague our communities that stop the kind of infrastructure-building that we need.

White: For people who have gone through the program successfully, how does their vision for what their life can look like change?

Hemphill: Taqi Thomas, a brother who started with us from the [program’s] inception, now is a homeowner. Never missed a day of work, working at Coca Cola. Hasan Smith, who is a carpentry instructor and started at the same time Taqi did, moved into the low-rental property with his wife and is now getting ready to buy their first home. And he’s a licensed general contractor.

So the endless possibilities, when you see these types of success stories for brothers in the program, is the motivational factor. We have Green ReEntry alumni who went on to become contractors who are coming back to really lend their expertise … and be a living testimony to what it is you can do. And hopefully that becomes a trend even for the women [branch of Green ReEntry].

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Meha Ahmad. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.