Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
December 26, 2013
Leslie’s Place gets help from defense bar group
The Women's Criminal Defense Bar Association presented a $5,000
donation to Leslie's Place. Representing the organization in
touring the facility and presenting the donation to Leslie Brown,
center, are Susan Ortiz, on the left, and Sarah Manning,
president, on the right.
By Jamie Loo
Law Bulletin staff writer
When Leslie Brown left prison as a free woman in 1988, she knew she would
In fact, she wanted to. Just not as an inmate.
“I wanted to come back to let the ladies know that there is life after
prison,” Brown said.
She returned to visit Dwight Correctional Facility with prison ministry
groups and, in 1992, started an organization that provided free
transportation for children to visit their mothers in prison.
“I witnessed many, many ladies never having a visit, never receiving mail,
no money, no support,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to do something to
make a difference.”
In January 1994, Brown received a letter from a woman she met at a prison
church service. Soon to be released from prison, the woman had nowhere to
She asked Brown if she could live with her. Brown told her “she had lost her
By the time a third letter arrived from the inmate, Brown heard a voice that
said, “Why not?” She prayed that if God could help her fix her house and
furnish it, she would help women leaving prison.
That December, Brown opened her West Side home to this first ex-offender at
a time when Brown, a mother of six, lacked money and was raising four
teenagers at home.
This first house guest inspired her to open Leslie’s Place, 1014 N. Hamlin
Ave., which provides a home and support services to help female ex-offenders
transition back into society. Brown used her own money to run Leslie’s Place
for three years until the state started providing funds in 1997.
Over the past 19 years, more than 1,000 women have come through Leslie’s
Place after their incarceration. Of this group, more than 90 percent avoided
another prison sentence.
The home got a financial boost from lawyers this year when the Women’s
Criminal Defense Bar Association raised $5,000 at its October fundraiser.
WCDBA past president Susana L. Ortiz said the bar group annually donates to
groups that offer shelters and transitional housing facilities to
ex-offenders. The bar association is comprised primarily of female attorneys
in private criminal defense practice.
“With the growing number of women in the criminal justice system, it’s great
that there are places like this,” Ortiz said.
Women on parole cannot be released from prison without an address; Leslie’s
Place provides that key element for women who have nowhere to go.
“Leslie has lived the life and walked the walk, so she knows exactly what
these ladies are going through and the challenges they face upon release,”
Walking the walk
Brown, 60, suffered years of violent physical and emotional abuse from an
alcoholic husband, she said.
The violence escalated over time, including incidents, she said, in which he
chased her around the kitchen table with a knife and made threats with a
gun. Brown entered a cycle that involved packing up, leaving and returning
“Each time, he would pay someone to tell him where I lived,” Brown said.
“And he would come back and promise he would never hit me again.”
Finally, Brown told her husband she wanted a divorce. He put a knife to her
throat, she said, and threatened to kill her and her children.
While she was still bleeding, a friend of her sister’s came over and saw
her. He asked if Brown wanted him to kill her husband.
“I said, ‘I don’t care what you do, I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough,’” she
said. “So the first murder committed in the city of Chicago in 1982 was my
Cook County prosecutors charged her with conspiracy to commit murder. During
the trial, Brown said, none of the domestic violence police reports she had
filed against her husband could be found for her defense.
She was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Locked up, Brown was so devastated worrying about her children’s futures
that she thought about suicide.
While she was in her cell, Brown said, she heard God’s voice telling her
about all the times he saved her from death. God told her, she said, “One
day you will be reunited with your children.”
About seven years into her sentence, former Gov. James R. Thompson signed
paperwork releasing her from prison just before Christmas in 1988. It was
the first time anyone had been granted clemency on a conspiracy to commit
Coming back to society was a culture shock for Brown, who suddenly had
custody of her six children and a pile of bills at her Hamlin Avenue home.
Family, friends and church members provided support until she could find a
What women face leaving prison today isn’t much different than Brown’s
experience 25 years ago. Women released from prison often have nothing but
their clothes, $10 from the Illinois Department of Corrections and a bus or
When a woman arrives at Leslie’s Place, Brown gives her toiletries, a
nightgown, shoes and clothing.
Given the realities of incarcerated life that they just left, it’s “like
giving them a million dollars,” Brown said.
Brown helps them obtain legal documents such as birth certificates and state
identification. She also provides transportation assistance such as public
transit passes so residents can get to classes, job interviews and other
The house has room for 15 women, which doesn’t include children who are also
allowed to stay. Brown also accepts women who are on house arrest.
“I don’t look at what they were charged with or what they did,” she said. “I
look at where they can be and what goals they can reach. I treat them the
way I want to be treated.”
House rules require the women to work or attend school, stay drug free, save
70 percent of their income and follow community living rules such as abiding
by a midnight curfew.
Leslie’s Place offers programs such as computer training, self-esteem and
motivational workshops and spiritual support. Brown also helps women find
jobs, permanent housing, outpatient mental health services and drug and
alcohol addiction recovery counseling. Ultimately, she wants to help women
meet their goals and become self-sufficient.
Brown emphasizes that Leslie’s Place is not a shelter but is, instead, a
community-living environment where women can feel at home.
The two-story, yellow brick house features a front hallway entrance that is
covered in crosses, written prayers and photos of former residents.
A landing on the stairway between the first and second floors has a relic of
the past — a pay phone — which was installed at a friend’s suggestion
because she said Brown was “too nice” for letting residents rack up big
phone bills on the house line.
The second floor has a living room with a television and sunlight streaming
in through a large window, a small kitchen and a dining area which has a
small desk and computer.
Each bedroom has a different color scheme with colorful bed spreads and two
beds or bunk beds. One bedroom has a bathroom connected to it and is decked
out in red, Brown’s favorite color.
“I took a lady with three boys and they went to school and told the teacher
they were rich because they had a bathroom connected to the bedroom,” she
The first floor presents a large framed poster of President Barack Obama on
the dining room wall that says, “Destiny: Our destiny is not written for us
but by us.”
“I find what I do really rewarding,” Brown said. “I love to see the ladies
take control of their lives and reach out and help somebody else because
that’s what it’s about. Not just about yourself but reaching back and
helping somebody else.”
The women are allowed to stay in the house for as long as they need help and
want to change, Brown said. Residents have stayed anywhere from six months
to four years.
“As long as they’re doing the right things and they want to be connected, I
let them stay,” she said.
In 2002, Brown opened Leslie’s Place 2 at 3250 W. Walnut St., about a little
more than a mile from the main house.
It has nine bedrooms and offers more independent living where residents pay
rent. The residents also undergo random drug testing.
The annual budget for Leslie’s Place is about $160,000; the majority of
funding comes from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Like other small
nonprofits, Brown said, it’s been challenging to cover operating costs in
the past few years.
Since 2007, she has cut back on staff and now runs both facilities with four
staff members and volunteers.
The donation from the WCBA is a blessing, Brown said, and the timing was
perfect. As of the end of November, the state had not written her a check
for operating costs since August.
“If it wasn’t for individual donors, I know I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
“I’m grateful and thankful to all those who have supported Leslie’s Place.
It means a lot.”
Regina Givens radiates enthusiasm.
During an interview for this story, she pulled a hot-pink, three-ring binder
out of her backpack and quickly flipped through the pages, gushing about all
the things she is doing.
There’s a letter from Chicago Commons for job-training classes. A meetings
schedule for the week. A weekly journal. A neatly typed resume.
This binder is filled with hope.
Givens, 48, is determined to get it right this time. She lived at Leslie’s
Place in 2009 and started using and dealing heroin again. She was released
from prison in November after serving an 18-month sentence.
“I got a different attitude this time,” she said. “I want something
different, I don’t want to use drugs no more. I don’t want to go down that
Although Givens could have lived with her adult daughter, Leslie’s Place
provides the services, support and accountability she needs to start over
again. Living with the other women and working with Brown inspires her to
“She (Brown) just extends her hand and overwhelms herself constantly. She
don’t take time out for her own personal life; she is so busy always trying
to help us,” Givens said. “She just has so much love here for all of us.”
Givens has a certificate in custodial maintenance and is looking for work.
She wants to write a book about her experience and inspire others.
Although there is more support for women leaving prison than in the late
1980s, Brown said the need has grown.
In 1988, the year Brown was granted clemency, there were 754 women in
Illinois prisons. Today, there are 2,909 women.
When Leslie’s Place opened in 1994, it was one of only two transitional
housing facilities for female ex-offenders in the state.
Today, IDOC funds 10 facilities, six of which are in Cook, Lake and Will
counties. Only two places in those areas, including Leslie’s Place, accept
women and children.
Without an address, some women who are scheduled to be released have to stay
in prison for weeks or months until a bed opens up somewhere.
Reflecting on her life, Brown said it’s a blessing to help other women get
back on their feet.
“I’m still alive and I’m able to give back. … So many domestic violence
victims don’t make it,” she said. “I just have a grateful spirit and feel