May 3, 2012

Former incarcerated mom steers vision to help other moms with a criminal past

By Barbara Pement

Mother’s Day can be the loneliest time of year for an incarcerated mother which is why Leslie’s Place, a safe haven and rehabilitation home for former female inmates has become one of the most rewarding and successful transitional bedrocks for women who’ve been separated from their children.

Located on Chicago’s Westside, for nearly 15 years, Leslie’s Place has helped over 500 women coming out of prison to become reunited with their children and families. They’ve learned how to bridge the brokenness of their lives and break the recidivism cycle through the definitive measures of Support Advocates for Women, the functioning arm of Leslie’s Place.

Leslie Brown understands what it means to be separated from her children. She recalls her own life’s story and how it inspired her desire to help others by opening up her own home to former jailed female inmates.

“My first day back at work after maternity leave I found myself sitting at the Cook County Jail,” recalls Brown remembering how it all began in 1982 --when she received a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder -- a last ditch effort to escape a nightmarish life of years of violent domestic abuse which resulted in her involvement in her husband’s murder.

“All I could think about was who’s going to take care of my children. My baby boy was 6 months old. The other son was a year and a couple of months. The son before him was four; my daughter was three. I had an eight year old and an eleven year old at home. So I had to think about ‘who’s going to take care of my children? Who’s going to be there at night to put them asleep?’ And it became so heavy on me—so heavy—that I contemplated suicide. I remember running from Reverend Octagon when I first got there. She used to say, ‘There’s just something different about you. I want to talk to you. Let me tell you about God.’ I was so angry so bitter I didn’t want to hear about God and no one else. So I use to run from her.

“Then after being there for one month, the Lord told me ‘get up and go in your room.’ I remember I was sitting in the day room. I went in my room and the Lord began to speak to me as though He were right there in the room. And he said, ‘Leslie let not your heart be troubled you believe in God believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If it were not so, I would not have told you.’

“He said ‘I go to prepare a place for you that where I am ye may be also.” He allowed my whole life to flash before me. He showed me all the times that my husband had tried to kill me. He showed me where my husband had tried to throw me off the 3rd floor porch. He said, ‘Leslie I was there.’

He showed me when my husband tried to stab ME, but instead he stabbed my coat. He said, “Leslie, I was there.” He showed me when my husband hit me in the head with the pipe. He said, ‘Leslie, I was there!’

One night my husband sat up all night with a shotgun between his legs. Threatened to kill me and my whole family. God said, ‘I saved you.’ He said, ‘So stop feeling sorry for yourself.’ He said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one can come to the father but by me.’ And I sat there. As I sat there, he said, ‘Leslie, if you would seek first the kingdom of God, and my righteousness, everything else would be added unto you.’

“ I remember instantaneously right then repenting, asking the Lord to forgive me for my sins and I remember all the hate, he took it away and it turned into love. I begin to be very hungry and thirsty for the word of God. I began searching the next day for Rev. Octagon. She took me to her office and gave me her sister’s Bible, which I still have right now. It was the only Bible she had. She said, “Read.” I remember just daily reading the word and staying in the word. I was there on a no bond. A couple of weeks later I went back to court, they gave me a $50,000 bond. The Lord spoke to me so clearly. I said, “Well, my family don’t have $50,000 cash to bond me out. And he said, ‘But I do.’ People came from everywhere and gave. A couple of weeks later they called my name out and said, ‘Leslie Brown, pack your bags. You’re going out on bond.’ I was bonded out!”

“When I went before this judge, he wouldn’t allow my police reports to be brought into court, he wouldn’t allow an expert witness on domestic violence to come in and testify on my behalf, and I tried to speak up in the courtroom and the judge said, if I didn’t be quiet, he would give me forty, sixty or life. And the Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Leslie I open doors that man close and I close doors that man opens.’ The Lord prepared my heart to receive a twenty-year sentence, because I did receive a 20-year sentence.

“The Lord just gave me a peace about it. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t mad. The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Read the book of Job.’ He said everything I did for Job, I’m going to do it for you. I remember reading the book of Job and reading the whole Bible through several times while I was incarcerated. But the Lord gave me a peace. And I remember while I was there, the Lord spoke to me at our prayer group. He said, ‘You’re going home in 1988.’

So I would begin to tell people my out date was in ’88. And people would call me crazy.

But December 22, 1988 a telephone call came, saying they had to release me the next day. The call came saying that the governor granted me clemency. I shouted, ‘Hallelujah!’ I stood up and just made an announcement. The ladies were in awe. They just couldn’t believe it: a lady charged with conspiracy to commit murder – was going home early.

But God had spoken to me and told me that there were going to be 7 days left in the year 1988 and the doors opened and I walked out. I was shouting and praising and thanking God the whole time. My attorney said, ‘you know you need to thank the Governor.’ I answered, ‘The governor wouldn’t have signed the papers if God had not touched his heart.’ I just remember it being the happiest day in my life because I could be reunited with my kids – the best Christmas present I could ever have been given to be with my children again after almost 7 years. History had been made in the State of Illinois. Everyone was interested to see this lady who had been granted clemency. It was a blessing to me from the Lord.”

After her release, Brown speaks of the vision she received from the Lord that began her journey, which captures the essence of what Leslie’s Place is today. She acutely remembers what it was like to be separated from her children during her incarceration.

“Our goal at Leslie’s Place is to help the women become stable in the community through a host of supportive services. On the premises we do recovery programs: AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings. We take them to computer classes and GED classes. We refer them out for job training and outpatient drug treatment and mental health assessment. We help them find jobs and permanent housing.

“The average stay is 6 months. Some of the women are stable at 6 months, but it depends on the person’s background. That is the uniqueness of the program. They can stay as long as needed as long as they’re doing the right thing. I’ve had people stay here as long as 4 years. Some come here with some experience in working, some already have their GED, and some already have their state ID.

“ There are some who have to start from the bottom. Several of them we have to put into a job-training program.”

Though the state has cut Leslie’s Place funding by 80 percent since 2007 resulting in the diminishing of her staff and the closing of one of her homes on the South Side, Brown still networks with several agencies and churches fulfilling the dream of helping women who have come from a similar background.

Leslie Brown will be speaking and sharing her story May 26 at a special 10am presentation at Bethel AME Church 1744 Darrell in Evanston 60201.