Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
December 26, 2013

Leslie’s Place gets help from defense bar group

Check presented to Leslie Brown

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 return.

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 go.

She asked Brown if she could live with her. Brown told her “she had lost her mind.”

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,” Ortiz said.

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 several times.

“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 husband.”

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 murder case.

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 full-time job.

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 train ticket.

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 off-site services.

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 said.

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.”

Starting over

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 road.”

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 keep going.

“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 blessed.”