Vickroy: Ex-cons, families struggle to co-exist with past
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy March 15, 2013 8:18PM
Panelist Patricia Miller speaks during the Generating Hope forum at Governors State University Monday, March 11, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 18, 2013 6:14AM
Darryl Cooke accepts full responsibility.
He knows it was his fault, losing his temper the way he did. He’s the one who had the gun, who fired it impulsively, who ended up injuring his former wife.
He also knows what was lost as a result of that fateful afternoon when pride and anger got the best of him.
The Bowen High School graduate, an honorably discharged Marine who also once tried out for the Cincinnati Reds, lost 10 1/2 years of his life, not to mention countless opportunities and a shot at breaking the cycle of poverty and crime that has plagued his family and South Side neighborhood.
He doesn’t make excuses. But he is determined to make changes.
“I did something bad, I know it,” said Cooke, now a Richton Park resident and junior in Governors State University’s college of social work. “I understand why I did it, but I am the epitome of a person who wants to get his life together.”
He’d like to help other ex-cons do the same. That’s why he shared his story at the recent GSU forum “Generating Hope: Struggles, Challenges, Change ... Facing Life in Spite of Our Past.”
“It’s important to raise awareness about why people commit crimes and what they need to get their lives back together,” he said.
The forum addressed the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated men and women and their family members.
Lorri Glass, associate professor of social work at GSU and coordinator of the bachelor’s degree program in that subject, said that despite having done their time, many students with criminal backgrounds learn very quickly that their past will continue to haunt them, impacting their education and career options.
At the end of 2011, about 1 of every 107 U.S. adults was incarcerated, according to the National Employment Law Project. One in 50 U.S. adults was on probation, parole or another form of post-prison supervision.
“The face of this issue is a person of color,” Glass said.
In 1980, she said, 10 percent of black high school dropouts ended up incarcerated. By 2008, that had increased to 37 percent, compelling civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander to write “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.”
“The United States has more incarcerated individuals than any other Western nation,” Glass said.
The result for these individuals and people close to them is shame, guilt, exclusion and barriers to self-sufficiency. It is difficult for a person with a record to get a job or be approved for a lease, she said. It’s almost impossible to land an internship or to qualify for malpractice insurance. And the rate of recidivism is nearly half. Four in 10 offenders will return to prison within three years of their release, she said.
“Our goal is to provide information, support and resources for those facing this challenge,” Glass said.
More than a number
For many, an ongoing issue is dealing with the weight of their label.
Terry Banies became No. 890012 in 1978. He’s served his time, but every time he fills out an application — for college, for employment, for housing — that number comes back to haunt him.
“I didn’t just have the idea to one day become a criminal,” he said.
Banies, who grew up in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes during the 1960s and ’70s, recalled how he was stopped en route to the store by another kid in the neighborhood and invited to an organizational meeting.
“I didn’t go because my mom was against gangs,” he said. “The next day they came and busted out our window.”
Eventually, the environment caught up with Banies, and he, too, ended up in prison.
As tough as his youth was, he says, it was just as tough assimilating after his release from prison.
“A big thing for me was learning how to take constructive criticism,” the Chicago resident said. Today, he is a senior in the GSU social work program.
“I’m not trying to walk away from my past,” Banies said. “I’m trying to co-exist with it.”
So are many people who never even had a run-in with the law.
Patricia Miller’s parents did the crime, but in many ways she also has served the time.
Miller, 29, was in third grade when she first felt the weight of her parents’ label.
It was career day and the fathers of many of her peers in her small southern Illinois community came to talk to the class about their jobs as construction workers and engineers and whatnot.
“My father was incarcerated,” she said. “He was an addict.”
Things got worse when her mother was incarcerated later that same year. Miller and her siblings were sent to their grandmother’s house for the summer while her mother served a sentence for her DUI.
When she returned to her hometown, people avoided her.
“One of my friend’s parents said I was only going to use my friend for her toys and her stuff,” Miller said.
In school, bright kids with futures were sent to guidance counselors about their prospects. She was sent to intervention class.
“I was expected to continue that learned behavior,” she said. “Never once did anyone say what I could do; it was always what I couldn’t do.”
Yet last week, she announced at the GSU forum that she now has a 4.0-grade-point average.
“I just couldn’t give up on myself,” she said.
The Steger resident said her epiphany came after the birth of her first son, when she was 20.
“I realized I needed to be different for him. I knew I had to change this; I had to show him what to value in life,” she said.
The mother of two said she is blessed to have had significant support from her fiance, Mike Schultz.
“You do need support,” she said.
Which is why, when her mother is paroled this week and released to her custody, Miller plans to give her all the support in the world.
“I’m going to find her resources, and if she wants to change I’m going to be by her side and hold her hand,” she said.
She also plans to use her social work degree to advocate for change. She wants to use her experience to help increase awareness.
“I hope the next time you see an individual with a background, you see a mother, a father or a friend, but mostly that you see a person who has a right to live and a dream for tomorrow,” she said.
A road to trouble
Cooke knows a bit about dreaming. He once had his sights set on playing in the major leagues.
That was before his life veered off course.
Cooke remembers how he pestered his mom to let him walk home from school by himself. Concerned about her first-grader navigating the tough neighborhood around 79th Street and Jeffrey Boulevard, she was hesitant but eventually gave in to his demand, as long as he walked with his little sister, a kindergartner.
“I got out, grabbed my sister and, you know what, we walked around that school about three times and finally my little sister said, ‘We’re lost, aren’t we?’ ” Cooke said.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Cooke’s mother appeared to walk them home.
“She was always trying to build up my confidence, to let me do things for myself,” he said.
Cooke also remembers the day his mom ran afoul of the law. He was 6 or 7 and a cousin pointed to the television and said, “Isn’t that Auntie?”
Cooke said his mom, struggling to raise three kids on her own, had helped her new boyfriend rob a store. The boyfriend was killed in the incident and Cooke’s mom was arrested. She got 60 years.
“Everything changed that day,” he said.
Despite messing up, Cooke said, his mother continued to remind him to stay out of trouble. She wrote regularly from Dwight Correctional Center. And each time Cooke went to visit her, she reiterated her expectations for her oldest child.
For a long time, Cooke was successful in that endeavor.
He became a celebrated high school pitcher. When he didn’t make the majors, he joined the Marines. After he finished his stint with the military in 1995, he landed a job as a switchman at Norfolk Southern Railroad. He married his girlfriend, and the couple went on to have two children.
Four years later, his marriage was on the rocks. His wife had a new boyfriend, and she was giving Cooke a hard time about seeing his kids.
One day, he’d had enough. He drove to the beauty shop where she worked, he said, to discuss the matter.
He ended up in an altercation with the new boyfriend and three of the man’s friends.
“I was 24 and I thought my pride was being tested. I didn’t know how to deal,” he said.
“It was all my fault,” he said. “I should have gone home. But I felt I had to do something to make myself feel better. I’d lost my wife, I couldn’t see my kids and
now I’d been disrespected by this group of guys.”
One thing led to another and his wife retreated inside the shop. Cooke soon found himself shooting at the window of the salon, hoping, he said, to create a big enough hole to slip his arm through and unlock the door. But the bullet shattered the display window, a piece of glass slicing his wife’s leg.
He was charged with attempted murder.
The first person to write him in prison was his mother.
“The headline in the neighborhood was that I got angry and shot my wife and that I went to jail,” he said. “I kept thinking I had to change that.”
So he hit the books, taking classes through a nearby community college. He also began tutoring inmates and giving motivational speeches.
When he received his associate’s degree, he made a copy of the certificate and sent it to his mom at Dwight. She sent back a letter to his warden, asking if they could pile the time he had left on to her sentence. Recalling that moment reduces him to tears.
The road back
After he was released from prison, Cooke said he walked up and down U.S. 30, from Governors Highway to Cicero Avenue, applying for jobs at all of the businesses. Only LA Fitness called.
One day, while he was handing out fliers for the fitness center on the campus of GSU, he was approached by a professor.
“She began asking me what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” he said. She persuaded him to come to an open house, where he met Glass.
“I told her everything and she said I could still come to school,” he said. “That was the best decision of my life.”
After Cooke completes his bachelor’s degree, he plans to pursue a master’s and work to effect policy change.
Inmates, he said, need proper rehabilitation and a proper re-entry program.
“Right now, with nothing to do, they group up by crime. All the auto thieves hang together and they talk about what went wrong, how to commit a better crime once they get out,” he said.
In addition to his studies, Cooke speaks about gang avoidance at local high schools, including Thornridge and Rich East. He’s also written a book, “After the Bridge Was Crossed: A Journey of Thought.”
And he is in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status for his nonprofit group, We Speak for Those That Can’t. It is a support system for families whose lives have been shattered by violence.
“For the rest of my life, I will carry the ‘attempted murder’ label,” Cooke said.
It is heavy, he says, so he tries to balance it with a resume of good things.
“I made sure I changed,” he said. “I am very strong and now I need to help my community.”
That help, he said, begins with “not looking at people coming home as nobodies.”