In 2013 the number of inmates released from Illinois prisons was roughly equivalent to the entire population of the Village of Northbrook or the average attendance of a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, but where do they go and how easy is it for them to get back on their feet?
Just over 30,000 inmates were released in 2013, according to information released by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
About 12,000 or 39 percent made their way back to Chicago.
In many cases, they came home to the same impoverished neighborhoods and zip codes they left.
According to the IDOC, the largest group of inmates, 1,570, went to zip code 60608 on Chicago's near west side, which includes the neighborhoods of Bridgeport and Pilsen. The next largest group, 923, went to zip code 60607, which includes Chicago's Greek Town and Little Italy neighborhoods.
The West Side and South Side of Chicago are the areas with the highest concentrations of inmates released last year, according to the documents. Zip code, 60628, on the Far South Side, which includes the Roseland and West Pullman neighborhoods, saw a migration of 785 inmates.
On the West Side of Chicago, the Eisenhower Expressway separates a corridor of zip codes from Lawndale to Austin where hundreds of ex-offenders returned to the pockets of poverty they left.
"You know, Chicago, we talk about it being separated by gangs, right? But you know, it's separated by zip codes," Charles Perry, Director of Community Organizing of the Westside Health Authority, said. "Certain zip codes don't want us in their zip codes."
According to the IDOC, the top 10 Chicago zip codes listed where ex-offenders returned were:
- 60608: 1570
- 60607: 923
- 60628: 785
- 60624: 779
- 60644: 679
- 60651: 616
- 60619: 544
- 60623: 540
- 60636: 486
- 60621: 428
In the Austin neighborhood, 60651, eight recently released inmates whose crimes range from burglary to retail theft to DUI sat down to talk about one of the hardest issues they now face: finding a job.
Mark Topkins was released earlier this year from the Sheridan Correction Facility. After being asked by prospective employers if he is an ex-offender, Topkins said, "I never get a call."
Joseph Summers was released this spring from the Pinckneyville Correctional Facility. He interviewed, he said, for a job at Subway. "I tried to tell him I don't get a lot of second chances so I'm going to try harder maybe than the guy who has never been in trouble," Summers said. But he didn't get the job.
It's the box that often beats them: "Check off yes or no: 'Have you ever been convicted of a crime?'"
State Representative LaShawn Ford successfully fought to have the box removed on initial applications for state jobs.
"Once you check that box, you would guarantee that your application will be in the trash, and you will not get a call," Ford said.
Now Representative Ford might potentially face the same fate. He's awaiting trial on a federal bank fraud charge to which he has pleaded not guilty.
A narcotics charge sent Mark Mitchell to prison decades ago. Today he has four college degrees and, he says, a clean record. But he still can't find a job, and he's been out of prison for 20 years. "It doesn't mean a thing," said Mitchell, who is the director of Mentoring Services with the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated.
Another founder of that group is Benny Lee. "I've been home 30 years, I go and seek employment, I still got to check the box," Lee said.
"In our society today, an employer can tell an individual simply and solely because of their criminal history that we do not hire people with convictions," Jerry Butler, Vice President of the Safer Foundation, said, adding, "I find it very discriminatory."
At a Safer Foundation facility on Chicago's west side, 385 IDOC inmates are being taught skills to find a job through a state grant. According to a recent IDOC survey, 38 percent of inmates tested were below sixth grade reading and math levels. State officials believe it is a primary cause for the lack of jobs for inmates once released, and a major factor for a 47 percent recidivism rate in Illinois.
Still, in Illinois, there have been some changes. The state offers tax incentives for businesses hiring ex-offenders. Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office announced this spring an increase in the number of ex-offenders receiving job training. The CTA since 2007 has hired ex-offenders as apprentices. And the Chicago Reporter reports a marching band trumpeted the opening of a rehabbed house where ex-offenders will live in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.
Still, they will be met with the stigma of incarceration as they search for jobs, something Charles Perry, who was released from federal prison six years ago, fully understands.
"That's not the person I am today," he said adding, "Employers… should know, but why wouldn't you give a person a chance who has changed his life?"
DePaul University interns Jerrica Valtierra, Raya Sacco and Christie Lacey contributed to this article.