Wednesday, June 06, 2012


You know you can talk about theory and you can talk analysis.  You can report on the big stories.  Every now and then though it is good to remember that all of those things translate at some point into actual lives.  The story below from Prison Culture is a real story about a real person in a real place at a real time.

A Dispatch from Chicago’s Economic Wastelands…

This week has SUCKED on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to even begin… I will limit myself to one particular illustration of how terrible of a week it truly was. I am so glad that it is Sunday and that the start of a new week is just around the corner.

At around 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, I received a panicked call from the grandmother of a young man (I’ll call him George) who I first met in mid-2010. George was referred to me by a teacher friend because he had been recently released from prison and needed some support. Honestly, what he desperately needed (like millions of others) was a job. There were no jobs in sight. My friend had been his teacher in the 8th grade and he had come by the school where she still works asking for her help. She was honestly very surprised that he remembered her after all of these years. This underscores the truth of the famous quote by Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends.”

At 21, George had spent the better part of 8 years cycling in and out of first juvenile detention, then youth prison, and finally adult prison. He was somehow able to pass his GED examination in between stints behind bars. This gives you a sense of how bright he is. After much stress and some begging, we were able to find him a job at a local retailer. He has been working there since last June. Today he is 23 years old, has a 1 year old daughter and a lovely girlfriend.

So I rushed over to Grandma’s apartment (located on the West side of Chicago). By the time I arrived, it was after midnight. The young man, who I will call George, had locked himself in his bedroom with his girlfriend and daughter, he had a gun and was threatening to kill both of them and then himself. [Honestly, if I were not actually living my life, I wouldn't believe half of the situations that I find myself involved in. Most of the individuals who I work with are in some form of crisis and I don't write about 90% of what happens on a daily basis]. The apartment was packed with random family members and some neighbors. Everyone was taking turns shouting through the locked door telling him to release his daughter and girlfriend. I tried to intervene by asking people to stop yelling suggesting that this was not helping the situation but was summarily ignored. At around 1:30 am, George finally allowed his girlfriend and daughter to safely leave the room. He quickly slammed the door and locked himself in the room again. Needless to say that both the girlfriend and the baby were inconsolable. The girlfriend insisted that he would never have harmed her or their daughter. And I believe her. She explained that on Monday, he had received a notice that he would be laid off from his retail job. HE. JUST. LOST. IT.

Now I was sitting on the couch, feeling completely helpless, while large men were throwing themselves against the door to try to break it down. Others were threatening to call the police in very loud voices. I again tried to pipe in to say that this would only make matters much worse since George would most certainly be re-incarcerated for violating the terms of his parole. He was in possession of a firearm. It seems that I got through to folks on that point because they stopped threatening to call the cops.

At around 1:45 am, George’s godmother (who he is apparently very close to) arrived from the far southside. Thankfully, she was a hospital social worker. She took command of the room and successfully got the men to stop trying to break down the door. She also proceeded to clear the apartment asking all of us to leave. I have to admit to being more than a little relieved that I was not going to be expected to talk George down from a suicide attempt. I am not a licensed social worker or counselor and this situation felt well-above my pay grade.

By Peter Yahnke
The next day I returned to the grandmother’s apartment for an update on the incident. George’s godmother was able to convince him to open the door and give her the gun. She then drove him to a local psychiatric hospital where he was admitted. On Thursday, I stopped by said hospital knowing that I would not have a chance to see George but wanting to leave him a card along with a couple of books that I know he will appreciate.

There is so much to unpack in this story and I will leave it to others to do it. The way that we talk about the impact of incarceration in our culture is woefully inadequate. Our language obscures the concrete and day-to-day struggles that people who are released from prison experience. George was one of the “lucky” few who had been on his way to recovering from the brutal experience of incarceration. He had a job, was building a family, and was contributing to society by mentoring younger men who, like him, had found themselves in trouble. Now he is in a psychiatric hospital, on his way to being unemployed again. I’ve reached out to his employer and will meet with a manager there next week. It is my hope that we can find some sort of accommodation that will allow him to keep his job (at least on a part-time basis). In the meantime, I have feelers out for other potential employment.

One last thing, if we had involved the police in this matter, George would surely have been shipped right back to prison: a place that he most certainly did not need to be. This episode frankly underscores the value and importance of developing community-based accountability models across the country. It was George’s great fortune that he happened to have a family member (his godmother) who had the skills and the access to resources that could help him without further trapping him in the prison industrial complex. Many other people need similar opportunities.

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