Through interactive event, Westside organization puts people in the shoes of re-entering individuals

alt text By Ebony Ellis, Violence and Prevention Reporter, The Real Chi

Imagine exiting the realities of being incarcerated — an experience that has been proven to be traumatic for a lot of people — and facing the stress of re-entering society; to wake up, go about life and not be considered a citizen despite already paying one’s debt to society. There are many people who inquire about the effects of mass incarceration; how are people affected by it and what can be done to dismantle this system? One answer, according to hosts of a recent event, involves recognizing and being empathetic to the experiences of re-entering individuals.

Better Boys Foundation Family Services (BBF) hosted “The Comeback: A Formerly Incarcerated Immersion Experience” on Feb. 23 in their headquarters at 1512 S. Pulaski Road. This organization offers services related to community engagement, education, employment, family, health equity and youth. The organization has partnered with Illinois Humanities for their “Envisioning Justice” initiative which aims to use the arts to facilitate conversations about the impact of mass incarceration in Chicago.

According to Safer Foundation, a social impact organization, over 70,000 people are released from Cook County Jail and into the top seven communities in Chicago that experience the most economic hardship. An estimated 100,000 people go through the jail each year, according to the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC).

The event presented some of the realities for formerly incarcerated individuals. Some of those realities include the need to provide proof of citizenship, limited traveling resources and limited employment opportunities.

“My favorite part is when you hear from the community members themselves. It was an interestingly structured event,” said Alex Boutros, who works with Chicago Votes as a community organizer.

The event simulated processes that re-entering individuals typically go through. Attendees were able to experience what it’s like to be in their shoes by participating in those processes, such as acquiring required identification, getting instructions from a parole officer, and receiving bus fares and job assistance. At the beginning of the event, participants were initially provided with only two bus passes so they could imagine what it’s like to re-enter society with limited resources to travel to various places.

Representatives from Circles and Ciphers, North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council (NLCCC) and Chicago Votes talked about their work and how they offer support to re-entering individuals.

Towards the end of the event, Dominique Steward, “Envisioning Justice’s” hub director for North Lawndale, asked the audience if they felt more empathy and gained an understanding of some of the realities of re-entering individuals. People around the room nodded. After going through the processes of standing in long lines, waiting for their turn to speak to people portraying the rude employment manager and parole officer, attendees said they gained an understanding of what it is like to be in the shoes of those re-entering society— and that, according to organizers, was the purpose of the event.