In 1982, Leslie Brown went to prison for conspiring to murder her husband.
"It was my second husband, and I was in a domestic violence situation for
many years, and I just couldn't take any more of his abuse," said Brown, who
served seven years in prison until she was granted clemency in late 1988 by
then-Gov. James Thompson. At the time, the governor said he freed Brown and
another woman because they were driven to their crimes by abusive husbands.
Once Brown got out, she found herself without many resources to start
over--no food, no money--and a family to support.
"It was scary getting out of prison," she said. "I suddenly had custody of
my six children. I didn't find a lot of assistance from any social service
What Brown had, however, was a large, two-story home with a finished
basement that she shared with her mother. With help from her family and
church groups, she was able to get back on her feet.
In 1992, inspired by her experience, Brown created Support Advocates for
Women. Through the program, Brown arranged bus trips to downstate prisons
for the children of incarcerated mothers. She also developed life skills
classes for incarcerated women to help build their self-esteem and prepare
them for life on the outside.
"Then in 1994, a lady wrote me and said she was getting out and had nowhere
to go," she said. So Brown, who had always been troubled by the lack of
housing options for female ex-offenders, invited the woman to come live with
It was the start of a mission. In December 1994, Brown officially
transformed her home at 1014 N. Hamlin Ave. on Chicago's West Side to
Leslie's Place, a recovery home for women ex-offenders. In April 2002, Brown
opened a second house nearby, at 3250 W. Walnut St. In all, she has invited
almost 300 women--and their children--to spend their first several months
out of prison at her place. While there, the women get free clothing, food
and help finding employment and housing.
"On the outside, they need a place they can go to that will accept their
children," said Brown. "They need a safe haven, a structured environment."
According to researchers, more than 80 percent of women in prison are
mothers. That fact, according to both prison officials and those working
with ex-offenders, makes post-prison life for women particularly difficult
to navigate. Every step, from finding housing to landing a job, is even more
treacherous because they have children to care for.
While the prison population for women grew faster than it did for men during
the 1990s, women are now leaving the state's prisons in record numbers and
finding few resources that cater to their specific needs.
And the programs that serve them are struggling to keep pace. A Chicago
Reporter analysis of corrections data shows that first-time female offenders
go back to prison twice as often as they did a decade ago.
Black women may have the greatest needs after prison. Blacks are the most
likely of all women to return to prison, and they account for 62 percent of
the state's female prison and parole population.
At Leslie's Place, women are required to help maintain the household, taking
turns with cleaning and other duties. They also have weekly classes in
parenting and life skills, along with Bible study. Those with addictions are
required to attend regular Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous
But the number of women leaving prison annually has grown by more than 130
percent since Brown opened Leslie's Place, according to Illinois Department
of Corrections data.
The state has a contract with Leslie's Place, which has a total of 28 beds
between its two facilities, to help pay for the mortgage, utilities, support
group meetings, and other costs. The state pays about $40 a day for each
client. But Brown said the amount is not enough. It's the same amount the
program received when it first opened nine years ago, she said. "If it were
a priority, [the state] would put more money in it."
Corrections officials said budget constraints have kept the state from
paying more for transitional services. The cost to incarcerate an individual
in Illinois increased from $15,988 in fiscal year 1991 to $23,812 in fiscal
year 2002, the latest for which figures were available. Meanwhile, the
state's adult prison population rose by nearly 54 percent.
The Illinois Department of Corrections is working with civic groups and
others to identify grants to help aftercare programs like Leslie's Place.
The state recently created "Faith in Transitions," a program designed to
link incarcerated women to housing, counseling, job training and other
resources before they leave prison. The state has finalized agreements with
as many as 30 groups in Cook, Macon and Champaign counties that will provide
the services. The project is slated to start in October with about 200 women
at the Decatur Correctional Center.
In March, Gigi Jackson, 41, walked out of the downstate Dwight Correctional
Center after serving two-and-a-half years for delivery of a controlled
substance. All she had were the clothes on her back and $10, the amount all
ex-offenders receive from the Illinois Department of Corrections when
"My mother and son picked me up, and I got us a couple of snacks," said
Jackson, who has lived at Leslie's Place since leaving prison. "But I kept a
few dollars in my pocket because I knew I didn't have any more money. I
needed food, and I needed to get to the aid office."
Many times, a woman ex-offender in Illinois walks out of prison, boards a
bus or train, if she's not picked up by a friend or relative, and heads back
to the city where she lived before going to prison. But, with no food, no
job and no place to stay, she has to get busy the moment she steps off the
"When you first get out, everybody wants to say, 'Hey, you out now. Just
chill for a minute,'" said Jackson. "But it doesn't work like that."
The first thing mothers have to think about is their children. In many
cases, incarcerated mothers leave their kids with friends or family, who
have cared for the children for years in some cases and want mom to relieve
them immediately after they get out of prison, said Roberta M. Fews,
placement resource unit manager for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
"They think you can take the kids back right away, but you can't, because
you have to get yourself together," said Brown. "You might still have to do
rehab, or get used to life outside of prison, and you're not ready. But
family might not understand that."
Of the incarcerated mothers sent to prison from Cook County, one-third have
four or more children, according to Susan George, a research associate who
worked on the University of Chicago project "Employment Transitions and
Family Formation of Female Ex-Offenders." And when children are not left
with friends or family, they typically end up in foster care.
George said women ex-offenders typically have child custody before going
into prison, and usually want to regain it once they're out.
"A mother has got a heavy burden of evidence to meet [if she wants her
children back]," said Gail T. Smith, executive director of Chicago Legal
Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. "She has got to show that she is off
drugs, which can be costly. She's got to show that she has housing."
But the choices are limited for mothers when they get out of prison. Some
forms of public assistance are no longer available to ex-offenders, and
there are few programs available to help. If a mother finds a homeless
shelter or a friend willing to put her up, her children also have to be
accepted. If she finds work, she also has to find child care.
"When they come out, their hearts are in the right place," said Brown. "But
then they're bombarded with all this stuff. They have to get this and do
that, and they're really overwhelmed."
The federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program bars
states from using TANF grants to provide assistance, including food stamps,
to people convicted of drug-related felonies. Nearly 49 percent of all women
in prison or on parole in Illinois had committed a drug offense.
In addition, the Chicago Housing Authority prohibits felons from living in
public housing. "I don't think that's fair," said Constance Harris, who
moved into Leslie's Place in October 2002 after a nine-month prison stay on
drug charges. "How can we better ourselves if we can't get housing?"
When women get out of prison, there are few places they can go for help,
said Fews. There are just a handful of programs, like Leslie's Place and
Grace House, on Chicago's South Side, that accept women and their children,
she said. "And they're already full."
At Leslie's Place, there are four vacancies, but Brown said she has a
waiting list and the beds will soon be occupied. "I've turned down people
because I don't have the room," she said.
She said the immediate tasks for women out of prison include establishing
"documentation," like a state identification card or a driver's license,
which is necessary to look for work or housing, and to seek assistance.
Often, they must find substance abuse treatment and counseling.
"Their self-esteem is significantly impaired," said Dennis Delfosse, a
licensed psychotherapist with the North Lawndale Employment Network, a West
Side agency that helps ex-offenders find jobs. "Some of them have been
victims of abuse of some kind, and suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder and depressive disorders."
Debbie Denning, deputy director of women and family services for the
Illinois Department of Corrections, said four of every five women in prison
have drug addiction problems, usually resulting from prior physical or
sexual abuse. "If we only deal with the addiction and do not deal with the
issues that led to the addiction, they're going to come right back [to
prison]," she said.
My Sister's Keeper, an 11-year-old agency on the city's Southeast Side,
provides job-skills training and job search assistance to women
ex-offenders. But it also provides group therapy and other assistance to
help women cope with emotional trauma.
"We realized that the female population was the fastest-growing in the
jails," said program coordinator Margaret Eubanks. "We noticed that the
women didn't get as many visitors. Most of the time, their mothers were
stuck with their children, and the guys didn't stick by them."
Two weeks after moving into Leslie's Place, Jackson was hired at Diagnostic
Health Services, a national company with an office on Chicago's West Side
that provides mental health care and counseling for the elderly.
"You've got to find a place that will hire ex-offenders," Jackson said,
"because not a lot of places will."
Jackson oversees the company's Token Economy program at its Chicago
location. People who participate in the company's counseling programs earn
tokens to exchange for goods and services. "We found out that she had good
math skills," said Larry L. Harges, regional director of programs for
Diagnostic Health Services.
"I'm finding out about a lot of things I can do that I didn't know I could,"
There are numerous barriers to employment for ex-offenders, especially women
who often must find someone to watch their children.
"Employment before prison is the single most important factor in determining
whether the women will find employment after prison," said the University of
Chicago's George. "But we found that employment [rates] prior to entering
prison are lower for women than for men."
Ex-offenders are barred from holding some jobs, often return to poor
communities where job opportunities are scarce, and usually lack work
history and marketable skills. The stigma of a prison record also scares
away some potential employers.
"Ninety percent of our workforce is ex-offenders," said Harges. "People
think [ex-offenders] aren't worth hiring. We want to prove otherwise."
In a 2002 study, the Chicago Urban League identified the top 15 ZIP codes in
Illinois where ex-offenders were paroled from 2000 to 2002. Those ZIP codes
included Chicago's 10 poorest and the city's top 11 for unemployment,
according to the report, "The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, Community
and Mass Incarceration in Chicago, Illinois and the Nation."
"People often have a pretty sporadic work history prior to incarceration,"
said Marcia Festen, who authored "Navigating Reentry: The Experiences and
Perceptions of Ex-Offenders Seeking Employment," a 2002 Chicago Urban League
report based on conversations with 72 ex-offenders. "As you have spent time
in prison, you are not as competitive with people who have been building
Festen added that prison job-training programs are not required to give
prisoners training they can truly use. "People in our study were
disappointed to find that the training they received in prison wasn't as
relevant on the outside," she said. "The certifications you receive aren't
as meaningful to employers. This is because the state does not hold
job-training programs in prison to the same standards as job-training
programs outside prison."
Walter Boyd, program manager for the North Lawndale Employment Network's
Ex-Offender Employment Services Network, has heard the same complaints from
"In prison, they are getting training for jobs that there is no market for,"
he said. At one point, prisoners were trained in programs like
computer-assisted drafting, he said. But now many of the ex-offenders Boyd
works with have earned certificates in horticulture.
"A Review of the State of Illinois Professional and Occupational Licensure
Policies as Related to Employment for Ex-Offenders," a 2002 report from the
Safer Foundation, found that the state is required or allowed to refuse
felons licenses for 65 different professions, including many that have
traditionally been a step toward economic independence for the poor, such as
hairdressing and child care. The Safer Foundation is a Chicago organization
that provides services to ex-offenders.
Fews said state legislators have loosened some of those restrictions. In the
meantime, she said, Illinois prisons have focused their vocational programs
on jobs, such as nail technicians and dog groomers, that allow women to work
Since women ex-offenders often lack the skills to command high-paying jobs,
child care can be too expensive, Denning said. "It almost doesn't pay to go
Jackson, the Leslie's Place resident, had served five jail sentences over
several years before finally being sentenced to her term in Dwight. All of
her arrests were for drug-related charges.
"I was just repeating the same behavior over and over again," she said. "I
would be working, doing good, then I'd start hanging with the wrong crowd
and using again. That was all I knew."
With few options for help, Brown said, women ex-offenders are vulnerable.
Without guidance they make bad decisions or rely on the wrong people, she
"If you've got nothing but $10 in your pocket, and you have nowhere to go,
what are you going to do?" Brown said. "You're going to do what you have to
"You're going to get turned around by that man who says, 'Come on, Baby,
I'll take care of you. You just have to do this for me,' and it's usually
some illegal activity," she said.
About 47 percent of women who left prison during fiscal year 2000 returned
to prison within three years, according to Illinois Department of
Corrections data. That was slightly lower than the rate for men, which was
55 percent during that same span, but state figures show that women are
returning to prison more often than they did 10 years ago.
"I've seen three people I was locked up with," said Jackson. "And they're
already back out there, using [drugs]."
The percentage of women who returned to Illinois prisons after being
released from their first prison stay increased steadily from 1992 to
2000--and now they return about as often as their male counterparts,
according to a Reporter analysis of state corrections data. About 30 percent
of all inmates who entered prison for the first time in 2000 have since
returned. A decade earlier, men were twice as likely as their female
counterparts to return.
"Most people are scared when they get out because they have nowhere to go,"
said Jackson. "Or they have to go to the same place they came from and back
to what they were doing. If you don't have a goal or a plan, you don't know
what to do."
Jackson and others at Leslie's Place appreciate the program. They believe it
can be the difference between success and failure.
"Having this place here took away the fear of having no place to go when I
got out," said Debra Jones, who lived at Leslie's Place after her release
from prison in February. She had served three months for prostitution. "It
was important for me to be in a place that had structure."
But the number of women who can be helped is limited by the selectivity of
the programs. Like the women they aid, Leslie's Place and My Sister's Keeper
must prove themselves capable in order to continue qualifying for financial
support from government and donors. To this end, they must choose
participants who have the greatest chances of success.
"We look for people who want to change, who already have some things going
for them," said Eubanks at My Sister's Keeper.
The program shies away from women with mental health issues and a history of
violence, because, Eubanks said, My Sister's Keeper doesn't have the
resources to effectively assist those women.
Neither does Leslie's Place.
"They must be ready to change," Brown said. "Because my resources are so
limited and so few, I take the ones who are very serious."
Denning, who heads the state's female prison institutions, said more money
has to be allocated to help create and sustain programs focused on women
leaving prison. That commitment is needed to stop "the cycle of
incarceration," she said.
Denning said studies have shown that children of incarcerated mothers are
seven times more likely than their peers to wind up behind bars.
"When mom is in prison, her children end up in prison, and their children
end up in prison," Denning said. "People don't realize it, but we're