Prisoners and Chicago Police 12th District residents openly discuss gangs and drugs


Officer Jointer at a previous Keepin' it Real event in the 12th Police District

Honest discussion about what got prisoners into a life of gangs, drugs and crime; what the benefits are for gang membership; how gang involvement may be prevented; and how to break the cycle were part of a shared experience for 9 prisoners and 30 to 40 Chicago Police 12th District residents (CAPS* beat 1213) Wednesday evening, Oct. 30, in the Northwest Settlement House Auditorium, 1012 N. Noble St., in the East Village. It was one of the Keepin' it Real events put on by the Safer Foundation and the Chicago Police Department. 

The discussion was led by Maudessie Jointer, 11th District Chicago Police Officer. She works with prisoners, in a Safer Foundation program, who voluntarily participate in informative programs at schools, CAPS and other public and private meetings. This evening's meeting surpassed any this writer has attended. Molly Murray, CAPS facilitator for Beat 1213, and myself credit that experience to the openness not only of the prisoners but also the audience. There was respect on both sides.

With an age range from 22 to at least 50s (the older men were reluctant to give their age), this group of prisoners were all fathers and only two had completed high school. The rest either have passed their General Educational Development (GED) test or are working toward it. Jointer made a point of saying that while there was a great deal of similarity in the backgrounds of the men on stage, many prisoners have higher degrees and may be doctors, lawyers or other professionals.

Of the 9 men on stage most indicated that they became involved in gangs because one or more family members were members of a gang. Gang membership wasn't a choice, it was their culture. These men are affiliated with the Gang Disciples, Vice Lords, Traveling Vice Lords and Latin Kings. (Westside Gangs map from Google.)   

Joining gangs
"People worry about gang members 'recruiting' their kids," said Jointer. "That isn't the way it works. Kids see guys being cool with money in their pockets. Or kids ask these guys for money repeatedly. Then those guys will say, 'You want money, you start workin' for it.'" 

In response to a question from the audience about whether having a father in the home when they were growing up would have made a difference. Most of the men responded "no." Some of their fathers were in gangs or jail. A few said that it was their responsibility, not their father's, to make a choice about their behavior. 

They said that kids need some place to go, something to do. And, they need people to pay attention to them. When kids misbehave in class, often it is because they can not read, read well or read fast enough. Rather than admitting that, they act out. 

"If teachers spent less time with the students getting "A" and more with those who are quiet, often because they need help, some kids wouldn't be part of gang," said one of the men. 

Gang benefits and structure
Gang affiliation has done "nothin' for me" said one man. "It taught me how to beg, barrow and steel," said another. "It's like chasing a ghost." They all shared in telling the reasons why all their "friends" never visited them in jail. And, not one did. It was too far away, they were on parole, they didn't have transportation, etc. 

Members can "get out" of gangs now because the structure isn't there any longer. "But that doesn't mean that someone who carried a grudge about something you did 10 years ago won't come up and shoot you." Jointer then gave an example of that. A guy with the grudge shot the man's son in front of him. 

"It used to be that gang leadership made the young kids go to school." If they stayed home despite their encouragement, they were not allowed to hangout with the gang. But now, that hierarchy is no longer in place. Whoever has the most guns and drugs has their own group. 

Future plans
In order to be part of the residential Safer Foundation program, prisoners must get a job. Individuals are encouraged to find a job on their own but Safer also works with businesses to arrange for jobs.

Sometimes the job providers look at the program as a way to get free or cheap labor. Jointer gave an example of one company that distributed two paychecks in a row that bounced. Safer then had to take legal action to get the men paid. To the men, it was a reward (a paycheck) was another broken promise.

While many businesses are supportive of hiring ex-cons, many are not. Over the years Jointer has worked with the Safer program and has seen what happens to those who want to break the cycle of incarcerations. She is convinced that records should be expunged, specifically for felony crimes, once the person has done all the time. 

A prisoner works hard, gets a job, takes classes goes through counseling. Then they go for interviews. As he is about to be hired, he is asked if he has been incarcerated. "They get slapped down, time and time again. They are trying to do the right thing but they are hungry and they can not get a legitimate job. That is not right. Double jeopardy is wrong." 

When asked what they plan to do when they are back in society, their answers ranged from becoming a lawyer to having their own business. One wants to work with cars, another jewelry while someone else wants to go back to school. None of them want to "do dumb things" any more. 

What can parents and teachers do?
The men on the stage and the officer said that people need to listen to their kids not just yell at them. Jointer, a single mom, shared a couple of her techniques. "When my daughter kept slamming her door on me, I took it off the hinges. When she complained I said, 'Since you keep slamming it, you must not need it.' 

"Her safety has always been of great importance to me. So, our agreement is that no matter what time of the day or night, she is to call me and I will go and pick her up and say nothing about it until the next day. That gives you a chance to cool down." 

The men encouraged everyone to listen to kids. Watch where they are going and who they are hanging out with. If their grades go down, if they wear gang colors, if they sleep more or want to eat all the time, if they keep coming home later and later or their attitude changes, chances are they are getting involved with gangs and drugs. "It is your house. You go search their rooms. Your business is to be tough." 

They also encouraged  teachers to partner with parents. If teacher notices a change. Contact their parents and tell them about their observations. Don't embarrass a kid. Talk to them about what may be going on, but not in the front of the class." 


Molly Murray (center) at another function earlier this year

CAPS Facilitator reflects
"I could talk forever about the guys last night and how incredible The Safer Foundation is. Ever since I have been involved in these Keepin' it Real programs, I have wanted to do more for these kids," says Murray. 

"It always really motivates me and gives me a renewed sense of hope for the kids on the street when I attend one of these forums. Simply put, they need a place to go for activities and someone to tell them they care, be a mentor.  

"I was really impressed with one kid. I believe he will go far and do great things. He has such a great head on his shoulders, so sincere, so straightforward. I hope he uses it to make himself happy in this life.

"I was also shocked (as I am most of the time hearing about the lives of these kids) by the youngest, who dropped out of school in the 8th grade. I can't believe any parent would allow this. He was a good looking kid, seemed to have a good head on his shoulders, I wish him the best, as I do for all those men looking for a second, sometimes 3rd, chance. 

"What saddens me most about these kids is that they don't have a choice in the life they lead. It is all they have lived, been taught and know how to do. A couple years ago, the first kid that made the biggest impression on me, said to me in a conversation after the event, 'I just want to learn a skill like cutting hair, I don't know how to do anything.' There was a little more to the conversation but I hear his voice in my head nearly everyday and I hope to help anyone that chooses to do the same." 

The Chicago Police Department has programs to engage kids. To learn about opportunities in your district, call the CAPS office. In the 12th District, the number is 312.746.8306 and in the 14th District it is 312.744.1261. 

The Safer Foundation, founded more than 40 years ago, focuses on reducing recidivism by providing services to help prisoners increase their education, develop new skills, get a job and become law biding members of local communities. 

CAPS is the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy 


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