Esquire Spread May Be Bellwether in Public Attention to Prisons


Less than 40 years ago, there was a huge shift in crime-related policy. Many believed if we increased the punishments associated with “low level” nonviolent crimes, criminals would be deterred. They were not, and our prison population exploded. Many were poor and unable to post even a $500 bond. The jail population exploded as well. The result: shattered lives and ballooning government deficits. Many believe it is time for a change.

For years, the prison population (excluding celebrity wrongdoers) has been largely invisible in media, but this month, Esquire magazine published a spread of people with their poetry that does not fit the “faceless horde” model. This, we hope, may signal a cultural shift.

On the second Tuesday of every month, a class begins in the basement of a house near the West Side of Chicago. They debate lines and prose. They write poetry full of feelings few have discussed before.

Though the learning is transformative, it isn’t part of a school curriculum. It is lead by a volunteer, Brandon Crockett, and all of the students are former inmates attempting to turn a new page in their lives. Many live in housing provided in the rooms above.

The program is held by St. Leonard’s Ministries, a nonprofit that’s served former inmates for over 60 years. In addition to both temporary and more permanent housing, the organization provides substance abuse treatment, physical and mental health services, and employment training. It serves over three hundred men and women every year. Eighty percent of the men and women completing the program sever the pipeline back to prison and jail, compared to less than 50 percent of all Illinois’ formerly incarcerated.

In the ’90s, few were interested in this impressive success rate, choosing instead to support “three strikes” and other laws extending prison terms for those convicted of nonviolent crimes. Locking them up with little mental health services and fewer employment training programs, the cycle began, and so did spending millions on confining them. Thanks to these practices, many state budgets, including Illinois’, are stuck in the red.

According to a study released earlier this month by the Vera Institute, those in the nation’s jails are more likely to be convicted and to spend time in prison. Even a jail stay of only a couple of days increases the likelihood of broken families and unemployment. Three-quarters of those found guilty are convicted of possession of a small amount of an illegal substance or other low-level nonviolent offenses. Their stay in prison, without access to any of the essential services organization’s like St. Leonard’s provides, costs a minimum of four times more.

Every year, 12 million people are locked up in the nation’s jails. No wonder the MacArthur Foundation, who financially supports the Vera Institute’s work, recently released a request for proposals for a new funding initiative aimed at reducing America’s reliance on incarceration. The five-year, $75 million initiative will fund state and local government programs seeking to develop a more fair and effective justice system.

Breaking the nation’s reliance on jail and prison is the first step. Funding the programs that help these men and women heal and begin living productive lives is the next. To support St. Leonard’s and change the public’s views of those living in prison and jail, Brandon teamed up with world-renowned Chicago photographer Sandro Miller to create an art book of photos and poetry like the excerpt above. The book,Finding Freedom, will become a reality if the Kickstarter campaign launched last week is successful. Miller is best known for his recent project, “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters,” in which he recreated some of history’s most famous portraits using the actor John Malkovich as the subject. It is now running at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles.

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Little League Championship Team Stripped of Title


America’s Little League championship team, Jackie Robinson West (JRW), was stripped of their title last week by Little League International. Officials determined that team staff expanded the team’s residency boundaries without receiving required approval from neighboring teams. The team questioned whether they were being held to a higher standard than other teams and hired counsel. As the two sides query the other party’s activities, it is clear the feelings and actions of the young players are being ignored.

The Jackie Robinson West team thrilled many as they won game after game and progressed to the Little League Championship in Pennsylvania in August of 2014. The team, made up entirely of African-American players from the South Side of Chicago, was particularly newsworthy at a time when many African Americans have lost interest in baseball. Before progressing to play in the Championship against the team from Seoul, South Korea, JRW beat the Mountain Ridge team from Las Vegas. JRW was the first Chicago area team to progress to the international final since 1967. Although they lost to the South Korean team, JRW was beloved and even traveled to the White House to celebrate with the First Family.

Sadly, the excitement was not to last. In December, allegations surfaced that some of the players were recruited from outside of JRW’s geographic boundaries. Little League International has strict rules on where players can live. These rules are meant to create community teams where players often know each other from school and build friendships that continue off the field. The League allows neighboring teams to approve of the geographic expansion before players from these areas can play on other teams.

At that time, Little League International dismissed the complaints, stating that neighboring teams approved of the expansion. The vice president of the Evergreen Park Athletic Association was the first to voice claims of suspicion. The team began investigating members of JRW after the Evergreen Park team lost to JRW in a sectional playoff game called after a little more than four innings. The score was 43-2. The Evergreen Park team pulled up public records, including voter and vehicle registration, to determine residency of JRW players. Evergreen Park is a mostly white suburb surrounded by the City of Chicago on three sides.

Although these initial claims of unauthorized expansions were dismissed, additional claims surfaced. Recently, officials from three neighboring teams, including the team from Rosemoor, came forward to state that they did not approve of JRW encroaching into their geographic area. The Rosemoor team’s geographic area is made up of the largely African American far south side of Chicago. After this additional evidence was revealed, the League fired JRW and district staff and stripped JRW of their championship, awarding it to the Las Vegas team.

In response, JRW hired attorney Victor Henderson to investigate whether other teams were similarly investigated. Mr. Henderson is part of the Henderson Adams Law firm. The firm has defended musician R. Kelly and government leaders including former governor Rod Blagojevich. The legal team will not only explore whether there is evidence JRW staff violated residency rules, but also whether the team is unfairly being held to a higher standard.

This is not the first time Little League teams have been stripped of their titles. In 1992, a team from Zamboanga, PA, was stripped of their title because players were from outside of their geographic area or over the age of 13. Similarly, in 2001 a team from the Bronx, New York, was forced to forfeit its games after its pitcher was discovered to be 14.

Clearly, the current controversy is far from over. But as investigations continue, questions remain whether the punishment hurts the adults responsible for any wrongdoing or whether it hurts the young players, whose integrity has never been questioned.


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Data? It Depends! Counting Homeless People Depends Upon Your Definition


The Great Recession led to an explosion in the number of people experiencing homelessness. Many turned to relatives and friends before turning to shelters or the streets. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for defining and tracking the number of homeless people. It currently does not define people “couch surfing” or living in motels as among the homeless. New legislation proposes to expand the definition of homelessness, but without increasing resources to support a system that’s over capacity and drastically underfunded, the bill fails to address the underlying problem.

Katie Jeffery’s 17th birthday present from her mom was the streets. Katie’s mother kicked her out of the house; the youth traveled from friends’ couches to cars, motels, and even a shed for the next four months as she battled to graduate from high school. Because she was never forced to live on the streets, HUD never counted her as homeless.

The nation’s public schools identified over 1.2 million students as homeless last year. Eighty percent are not defined as homeless by HUD and therefore are ineligible for essential services. States with smaller populations, like Wyoming, where Katie was living, are seeing some of the biggest increases; unfortunately, they also have the fewest resources. More than half of HUD-funded emergency shelters are located in major cities.

Last week, bipartisan legislation was introduced in Congress to expand the definition of homelessness. TheHomeless Children and Youth Act of 2015 was introduced in the House by Representatives Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA). Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced it in the Senate. If passed, it would identify homeless families and youth without regard to where they are staying. It would also give localities more power over how to spread their limited and grossly inadequate federal resources dedicated to these critical services.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness agrees that HUD’s definition of homelessness is out of date. But currently, only 14 percent of the approximately 380,000 unaccompanied youth under the age of 18 who “experience a runaway or homeless episode lasting more than one week” every year are served. For the nation’s system of shelters and other nonprofit service organizations to have the capacity to serve all of these youth, resources would need to be expanded by a factor of seven.

According to the Alliance, the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2015 would add an additional 7 million people eligible for services. Without additional funds, the organization is concerned that scarce resources will be shifted away from people living on the streets to those that have someplace to stay, however insecure.

One can only hope that a more accurate number would further strengthen the argument for additional resources. But given that slightly more than one in ten homeless people are currently being served, one wonders how much larger the inadequacy would need to be for our nation to allocate the resources needed to fund these crucial programs.

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