“My whole life has been in prison. I did 39 years, 39 years…so, I had to really change my mindset. All those strict rules and negativity.” I met Alvin last September about a week after he arrived at Saint Leonard’s House. I was taking a group of men to help at Christ Church Winnetka’s rummage sale; Christ Church’s rummage sale is impressive and they support Saint Leonard’s with a portion of the proceeds. I didn’t know Alvin’s story yet but it was clear that day that Alvin is a thoughtful, gentle, respectful man who carries himself with a quiet dignity. Alvin worked hard that day in Winnetka-a week earlier he was concluding 39 years of incarceration on an 80-year sentence.
Alvin grew up the oldest of 5, 2 bothers and 2 sisters, in the now defunct Rockwell Gardens housing project a few blocks from Saint Leonard’s with his mom; Alvin’s dad drowned when Alvin was young. Alvin describes Rockwell Gardens as rough, “I became a product of my environment, peer pressure-I can honestly say that. Hanging out with people I should not be hanging out with and that really caused me to get caught-up in the situation like I did. One of the guys charged with me gave false testimony. That was real hard for me to fight in court when you have someone saying you did something you didn’t do.”
Rockwell Gardens, like most housing projects that grew out of the Housing Act of 1937, were concentrations of low income residences placed in disadvantaged communities. We have since learned that mass public housing is not the way to support low-income communities and housing. Alvin shares that it was gang run and in order for a young teenager to survive the peer pressure to “affiliate” is powerful, menacing and sometimes threating. Alvin was about 14 years old when he first started running with the gang.
“My case was so stupid. Yea, I did a robbery but I didn’t have anything to do with the murder. I was hanging out with these guys and I was guilty by my association. Once you have someone saying you did this and that, it’s pretty much of a wrap. That’s how it was for me. Even though he caught another case and he came to one of the facilities I was at, in Pontiac, and I typed up affidavits. He wasn’t willing to sign it cause he knew I had 80 years.” Though he had nothing to do with the murder and had an alibi, Alvin got extended time because of the brutality of the murder. Two other gang members beat the victim and threw his body down four flights of an elevator shaft. Those two gang members pinned the murder on Alvin, but Alvin had an Alibi!
Alvin was in Momence, Illinois at the time of the murder and Alvin had people coming to court on his behalf testifying he wasn’t there. Alvin had a codefendant saying he committed the murder and, because of Alvin’s gang affiliation, it is easy to see past the facts and go with the attached labels on Alvin. Additionally, the State’s Attorney at the time was Richard M. Daley and he was getting ready for his first mayoral run. Daley wanted to show he was tough on crime, tougher on gangs and publicized the case to illustrate and strengthen his positions with voters. As Alvin said, “he was going to make an example and he did just that. I never did get any action in a court of law.” There were 5 people charged with the robbery and murder, one of his codefendants turned state’s evidence. Alvin beat the robbery charge-which he admits he did-but was convicted of the murder-he did not commit-as a result of false testimony.
When asked what the experience was like of having the gavel come down on the sound block and the judge announce, “80-years!” Alvin shares, “he said that, and I had a firm belief that I didn’t do this and it will get overturned in court. That’s where my faith was all those year even though I kept getting denied here and denied there. Then I had Northwestern University and two Tribune reporters investigate my case and all they needed was to have my codefendant tell the actual truth. That he was fearful for his life because they were threating us with the death penalty. They were seeking the death penalty on my case, yes. The Chicago Tribune, they had located him and they wanted to seek his interview about my case. Without his testimony, they didn’t have a case.”
As Alvin was sitting in Cook County Jail, bail was set impossibly high, waiting for trial, constantly being told by prosecutors they are seeking the death penalty, his belief in the justice system didn’t waver. However, Alvin now shares, “I didn’t do this so I had faith in justice, but I was blind as to people in authority like that and what would they do. I just never imagined people will let you just be railroaded like that and that’s what happened with me. I never got the help.” As Alvin shares, “I had so much information coming at me, I was just numb.”
Before prison, Alvin was in County and they had guards constantly monitoring him. Alvin thinks they had him on suicide watch because of the length of sentence. Ask if Alvin ever thought about taking his life he responds, “I always thought this was going to get overturned because I didn’t do this. I had all these people coming to court verifying my alibi and that didn’t do anything. They went off my codefendant’s testimony who testified falsely against me and that stuck forever.”
Alvin arrived at Stateville Correctional Center at the age of 21. When new inmates arrive, they check-in at the “bullpen” and on display for all. “I still remember that very first day they took me to Stateville. They had me in the bullpen and you can hear others yell, ‘on the new!’ Everybody looking down at you, I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what I was getting off into…there’s a catwalk with an officer with a rifle. I was shocked and I didn’t know what to expect.”
Alvin shares that one of his biggest mistakes was affiliating with a gang both in an out of prison. As Alvin said, “I wasn’t thinking about my future, the big picture.” Within a week of Alvin’s arrival in Stateville he was put on “security” and handed a metal file that he was expected to carry with him at all times. “I just hated I went to prison clamming gang affiliation because that stuck with me right down to today. Even when I’m gone, they will label me as a ‘former’; I noticed one of my codefendants passed and I saw a newspaper article about this death and they used the words ‘former gang member’…”
During Alvin’s early years in prison he experienced chaotic race riots based on affiliation, being placed in segregation/isolation, was stabbed twice and witnessed multiple deaths. Alvin didn’t want that life, he wanted out of the gang. As Alvin said, in that world it’s a “violation” and there are consequences for violations. In order to get out of the gang Alvin was going to have to “take a beating”. This would not have been any “beating” this would have been with pipes and other weapons and if you survive, you are out. Thankfully, Alvin was able to get out or “eradicate himself” from the gang, as the slang goes, without having to “take a beating” thought he had to check in to protective custody for a short while. Alvin shares, “they were trying to snake me real bad. One time I was going to the gym and they wanted to see me in the weight room. I already know that when you go in that weight room, that’s where they handle their business. Something was fixin’ to get real nasty just because I didn’t want to be affiliated anymore. They were going to bust my head wide open.”
It’s the mid 90’s and Alvin is in Pontiac and breaking free from the gang, Alvin is left alone for the most part. Throughout Alvin’s incarceration his family was incredibly supportive, visited frequently and made sure Alvin had money in his commissary. Alvin says, “they did that bit with me! I was telling them everything I was enduring. My mom would say, ‘I ain’t go be here forever.’ But she was she was there.” Alvin is also a man of faith. Though his faith wavered, Alvin said his mother just kept telling him, “believe in God and he will see you through! And it worked for me.”
It’s now 2018 and Alvin goes up to the parole board successfully and gets a target for release. Alvin is transferred to the Kewanee Reentry Center in 2019 and as Alvin shares, “it gave me a chance to take my armor off.” The Kewanee Reentry Center is designed with less rules and does not have strict schedules or an environment where you need to remain hyper-vigilant at all times in order to survive. It gives a person a chance to work on themselves, get out of the max security prison environment and make future plans.
Alvin had investigated Saint Leonard’s and knew he wanted to come here and take advantage of the programming. Alvin’s family could not understand why he didn’t want to stay with them, as Alvin put is simply, “I did not want to be a burden on my family.” Alvin embraced Saint Leonard’s programming and worked hard. Within 7 months he moved over to Saint Andrew’s Court, our permanent supportive housing site, where tenants are provided single room apartments with the support of Saint Leonard’s staff. He has secured a good job at a local steel fabricator operating a press brake, has money in the bank and is beginning to think about transitioning out of Saint Andrew’s Court to his own place.
Alvin has set an example with his work, with his words and with his actions. He has offered his wisdom, experience and advice to those coming into the program all while carrying himself with a quiet dignity that has helped Alvin continue to rise above challenges and obstacles. Alvin also met a woman who is now his fiancé and when asked how it went when he told her he was incarcerated for 39 years Alvin said, “I’m the type of person who does not want to hold anything back so I told her right away. She didn’t believe me, ‘you don’t look like you’ve been in prison for 39 years!’ but I was.”
Asking Alvin if there is a particular resource or program he liked at Saint Leonard’s, Alvin replies with a smile, “I enjoyed it all!” Alvin was informed by his parole officer that he has been doing so well and his security level is so low, he should be off parole in a couple of months. That’s exciting for Alvin because he has family in Kentucky and his fiancé wants to take him to Las Vegas. Something he never thought about before coming to Saint Leonard’s Ministries. Alvin’s siblings are all in the Chicago area and Alvin shares, “I got some cool nieces and nephews! I’ve gotten to know them and they have their own kids too.”
My favorite part of Alvin’s story is when he talks about his mom. Alvin’s mom was 83 when he was released and Alvin said, “everybody told me the day I came home, and I’ve seen it too, my mom had a new burst of life and I was there every weekend with her, that’s where I was. I’ve seen her dancing and all that. I was doing all the cooking and she was surprised I knew how to cook, I learned to cook in prison.” Alvin and his mother had 9 months together before she passed away this spring. Alvin, “stepped it up” as he said and because he was working, he was able to pay for her headstone which means so much to him and his family.
When asked what else he would like to share, Alvin said, “I’m just so glad I have been around you all at Saint Leonard’s because it has had a positive effect on me.”
Well Alvin, we are glad you are at Saint Leonard’s because you have had such a positive effect on Saint Leonard’s, the staff, residents and everyone you connect with! We are glad you are here and even happier to have you as a Face of Saint Leonard’s!