News & Views

A Really Special Speaker

The Michael Barlow Center has held many Graduations for its Green Building Maintenance Classes. March 16th, however, was a very special celebration because of the commencement speaker. Dr. Alcus Cromartie, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, delivered challenging remarks for the graduates that were coupled with unique historical observations. In addition to serving in World War II, Dr. Cromartie spent a number of years with NASA, the National Aero Space Administration; his reflections included many stories about both of these engagements. Patricia Williams, Barlow Center Receptionist, met and struck up a conversation with Dr. Cromartie while she was on her way to work one day a few years ago. Patricia realized that she was in the presence of a very special person and developed a friendship with him. Participants and guests at the Graduation were all moved by Dr. Cromartie’s remarks and his generous presence with us.

Early Interventions

Late in March, Victor Gaskins and several program participants from Grace House and St. Leonard’s House went to the Richard Henry Lee Elementary School on the South Side to speak with students about making positive choices in their lives. The 7th and 8th grade students were a very good audience who knew well what the concerns were that SLM program participants discussed. Guns, drug dealing and other negative elements are often made out to be quite inviting “on the front” end. When SLM speakers describe the ultimate end for these activities, jail or prison, young people may be more inclined to walk a different path.  St. Leonard’s House and Grace House program participants are always willing to talk with students. They understand the seemingly attractive call of the streets in the lives of so many desperate young people. Speaking candidly from a different vantage point may have saved who knows how many lives.

Prison Review Board Visit

On Feb. 10th, SLM hosted Adam Monreal, Chair, and Geraldine Tyler, Member, of the Illinois Prison Review Board. The Review Board has recently referred a number of individuals to St. Leonard’s House who have been in prison for long periods of time – one as long as thirty-five years. Returning to the community presents many challenges for these individuals who have been away from a world that has grown and changed in on so many fronts. It’s not just the obvious additions to society – such as the computer and cell phones – that can heighten one’s anxiety level.   Sometimes it’s the basic transition to making decisions about the simple things in life – when to get up, when to eat – that takes some acclimation. The staff at St. Leonard’s House and St. Andrew’s Court, where this issue surfaces more than at Grace House, spend a great deal of time helping men with this transition. The Adler School of Professional Psychology plays an active role in this process. Having done “one’s time” doesn’t always lay the foundation for an easy return to the community.

Alternate Spring Breaks

It’s become an annual “rite of Spring” for us at St. Leonard’s Ministries.  College students who are looking for something more than Florida beaches, come to SLM to do something positive with their time away from classes. This year, two groups of  “students came and spent a week at SLM; they were from Xavier University in Cincinnati and the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, WI. Students were assigned several tasks – mostly all having to do with basic maintenance work. The Dining Room at Grace House received a new coat of paint; and several resident common rooms underwent heavy duty Spring cleaning.   Several students tutored program participants at the Barlow Center who had special needs that the students were able to address. As students left they reflected that some of the men and women they met had accomplished some impressive goals in their lives in spite of time spent in prison and that the criminal justice system in this Country is in need of a major overhaul. Let’s hope that the future lives of these students will provide opportunities to accomplish that overhaul.

Silver Tsunami

The-fastest-growing population in federal and state prisons are those 55 and older, a trend that is forcing cash-strapped local governments to wrestle with the growing cost of caring for the aging inmates. According to a recent study by Human Rights Watch, the number of state and federal prisoners 55 or over nearly quadrupled to 124,400 between 1995 and 2010, while the prison population as a whole grew by only 42. Some legal experts cite the 1980/90′s drug wars which sent away thousands of young men to decades-long prison sentences. In addition, tougher sentencing laws, including the abolition of parole in many states and the advent of three-strikes-you’re-out laws in others, have fueled the growth in the overall prison population.  At current rates, a third of all prisoners will be 50 or older by 2030, according to a study to be released next month by the American Civil Liberties Union. Some experts are pushing states to take the controversial step of releasing certain older prisoners, e.g., those who are infirm, before their sentences are up. But this approach is not popular with those who believe, contrary to solid research, that lengthy incarceration has been a factor in decreasing crime rates to historically low levels.