Leslie Brown walked out of Dwight Correctional Center in Downstate Dwight 16
years ago, but she never put prison behind her.
There are monthly bus trips to take children to see their incarcerated
mothers. Self-esteem classes for female inmates. Prison ministry
groups. And on the West Side, there is Leslie's Place, Ms. Brown's
former home, now a residence for female offenders who need a safe place to
live after leaving prison.
Granted clemency in 1988 by Gov. James Thompson after serving seven years of
a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder — she was convicted of
paying someone $100 to kill her abusive husband — Ms. Brown returned to her
home, where her mother had been raising her daughter and five sons in the
wake of her husband's murder.
By the summer of 1989, she was back at Dwight, this time as a volunteer. In
1992, she incorporated her outreach programs. Two years later, a female
inmate with nowhere to go asked if she could live with Ms. Brown, and her
West Garfield Park home became Leslie's Place.
She bought another home in 2001, giving her the capacity to house 30 women
and their children. "Even when I walked out the (prison) door, I knew I was
coming back," Ms. Brown says. Female inmates apply for spots at Leslie's
Place; its sole source of funding is a state grant that pays $40.94 per
woman, per day. The ex-cons usually stay for up to six months. Ms. Brown
says she has a 97% success rate — that is, of the women who pass through her
program, 97% aren't reincarcerated.
The list of house rules isn't long, but it is iron-clad: Break curfew, fail
a random drug test or fight and you're out. There's a stack of letters on
Ms. Brown's desk, from women seeking a bed.
"We could use 10 to 15 more programs like Leslie's Place," says Debbie
Denning, deputy director of women and family services for the Illinois
Department of Corrections.