When Darcy Harvey walked into the crowded gym at the Willye White fitness center, he was greeted with a chorus of applause and cheers of “welcome home.”
Harvey, 55, is one of nearly 1,000 recently released ex-convicts, or returning citizens, who attended the Summit of Hope in north Rogers Park on March 24. Started in February 2010, the Summit of Hope is a series of prison reentry programs across Illinois that provide formerly incarcerated men and women with the support they need to reintegrate into the community and stay out of prison.
“The purpose of this event was to provide [parolees] with the things they often lack,” said criminology professor Brandi Virgil, who helped organize the event. “Many of them only read at a sixth-grade level, so they need someone to guide them through the process. They’ve often lost contact with medical services or don’t have state IDs. A lot of it just comes down to having access.”
Almost 400 volunteers, about half of whom were Loyola students, paired up with ex-convicts who they helped fill out paperwork and understand the various resources available.
Former inmates collected anything from basic necessities such as toothpaste and soap to important information on medical care, employment and housing. They could apply for state IDs, and there were booths that offered cheap cell phone plans and free dress shirts so the returning citizens could look professional for a job interview.
For those just released from prison, quickly finding a job can mean the difference between staying free or being incarcerated again, according to a 2015 study by the Manhattan Institute.
In addition to providing the resources to help ex-convicts find jobs, the summit provided personalized advice to help explain what those resources mean, said senior criminology major Adam Glueckert, who volunteered at the event.
“Some [ex-convicts] don’t even know what a lot of the stuff here is,” Glueckert, 21, said. “How do you fill out housing applications or pay child care? I think it’s just assumed that these people know what to do when they get out of prison when in reality they just wanted to get out of prison.”
Harvey said having a volunteer to explain things allowed him to leave the event feeling better equipped to stay on track.
“It was pretty awesome,” Harvey said. “There was a lot of good information. It was a little overwhelming — there were so many different options with the health care I didn’t know what to do — but for the most part, I feel like I learned some helpful stuff and I can keep making the right choices.”
But it takes more than basic resources to keep ex-convicts from winding up back behind bars. People who have been formerly incarcerated are often burdened with the stigma associated with crime, even long after they are released, according to Virgil.
Virgil said that stigma means parolees often struggle to find good paying jobs, or have difficulty finding opportunities for promotions and pay increases after being released. Having a criminal record decreases someone’s chances of having a job by up to 30 percent, and can cut the number of hours worked per week by almost half, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
“Right now I work at a company called Transcendia,” Harvey said. “We make the plastic windows for envelopes. I’m not going hungry, but I want to get better employment, like a career.”
If they are unable to break that stigma, ex-convicts often slip into the same destructive cycles that landed them in prison in the first place, according to Virgil. Nearly half of all people released from prison will return to prison within three years, according to a report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.
In order to overcome the taboo around criminality, Vigial said people in the community need to see past ex-offenders’ rap sheets. Events like this can help to bridge that gap, he said.
“It’s also about humanizing these individuals,” Virgil said. “They are members of our community — more importantly, our Rogers Park community.”
That humanization helps makes it easier for people to rebuild their lives after being released from prison, said Juanito Boligor, a sophomore criminology major who volunteered at the event.
“Talking to a lot of these people really breaks the mold of what a criminal is,” Boligor said. “Having events like this… is really good for the reentering criminals, and at the same time really good for the public, because it changes the idea of what criminals are. It reminds [the community] that they are still people.”