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Crain’s Chicago Business
June 7, 2004

Chicago’s 100 Most Influential Women

Leslie Brown, Founder, director, Leslie's Place

By Mary Ellen Podmolik

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.