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Chi-Town Daily News
April 23, 2009

Leslie's Place aims to give women another chance

By Mia Boyd

Leslie Brown knows how hard it is for women to restart their lives after a stint in prison.

She served seven years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder of her husband, whom she says was abusive. After being granted clemency during what should have been a 20 year prison term, Brown was released from prison. Brown was excited to be rejoined with her six children but also felt discouraged because she had no income to support her family. Luckily that changed within a month after receiving a job with the help of churches and friends.
 
“I recall standing in front of the warden and proclaiming, "You won’t be seeing me again,''” says Brown.

She kept true to her word, and has only been back to the prison to minister to other women there.

Brown says she felt a calling to help other women who needed assistance to integrate back into society after being in prison. So, in 1994 she founded Leslie's Place on Chicago's West Side. The brown brick building serves as a transitional living house for women who have served in prison or just need a place to call home during tough times.

"In 1994 a lady wrote me saying she had nowhere to go and no family in Illinois so that's when I started Leslie's Place," says Brown.

Leslie’s Place provides counseling, recovery and spiritual coaching, and computer classes among other resources to assist women in getting their lives back on track.

Wanda Moore, 29, has been in the program since December, after she got out of prison for possession of drugs.

“I can talk to Leslie Brown about everything," Moore says.  "She doesn’t criticize or look down on us. She’s like a mother figure.”

Women like Moore face an uphill battle after being released from prison, according to state and federal studies. In 2005, women accounted for seven percent of the total imprisoned population, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.  The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization, states that black women represent 30 percent of all females incarcerated and they are three times more likely to be incarcerated compared to Hispanic and white women.

A criminal record can significantly hinder a woman’s ability to acquire and maintain employment, according to The Sentencing Project. Only four in 10 women are able to find employment within one year of their release.

“It’s hard for ex-offenders to find jobs," Brown says.  "We need to create jobs for them. They get out of prison with only 10 dollars. What are they suppose to do? It costs more than that to get to Leslie’s Place.”

Paula Johnson, professor of Law at Syracuse University College of Law and the author of “Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison,” believes there’s a significant need to help black women after they have been released from prison.

“There’s has always been a need for housing and employment, but now more than ever," she says. "They need to be able to sustain themselves and their families."

“These programs do work where women are able to gain, regroup and get acclimated and obtain the skills they need,” she says.

As the economy has lagged, Brown has seen an increasing number of women seeking her services, and she is having problems finding funding. For the first three years that she ran Leslie's Place, Brown used her own money. She later secured some state funding.

“It’s difficult to get money. I’m turned down from corporations and grants. I think some don’t want to give to this type of program because these women are ex-offenders and some feel they’re getting what they deserve,” says Brown.

Brown believes that programs like hers can work. She says Leslie's Place has a high success rate - 93 percent of women who use her services don't return to prison.

Sylvia Bailey, 35, has been at Leslie’s Place since January and will be starting a job training program soon.

“Ms. Brown in very resourceful. She knows people," Bailey says. "Without her, I may not have this opportunity.”

Even with all the challenges, Brown will not give up.

“Giving these women a second chance is what keeps me going,” she says.