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Prisoners in Chicago Learn Skills, Improve Neighborhoods by Demolishing Vacant Homes

Cook County, Illinois has become the first county in the nation to employ a new, double-edged strategy to attack neighborhood blight and train jail prisoners for productive employment following their release, by using prisoner labor to tear down abandoned houses that erode property values and, in many cases, become magnets for criminal activity.

The program, called the Neighborhood Restoration Initiative, was the brainchild of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who said he came up with the idea after driving past an abandoned house in suburban Chicago that had been gutted by fire and had a tree growing through it. The vacant home was one of only two residences on the block; owners of the other property were meticulous about keeping their house attractive, mowing the lawn regularly and tending their flower bed.

“How is it that these poor people have to live next to that, and no one cares, no one is doing anything about it?” said Dart. “I kept saying to myself, this is so wrong.”

Only prisoners who are sentenced to the Sheriff’s Office’s one-year boot camp, typically non-violent offenders who have had more than one run-in with the law, and who are near the end of their sentences, are eligible to participate in the demolition program. During their first four months, the prisoners live, work and receive training in a boot-camp setting. For the final eight months they are eligible to live at home under electronic monitoring, as long as they get jobs, return to work for the demolition crew or find another boot camp job.

What makes the initiative different from most work-release programs is that prisoners are released with a marketable skill. Dart said he has talked with union officials and business owners about finding jobs for prisoners once they are freed.

“We look at these businessmen and say, ‘Listen, we’re going to give you someone who has training, someone who has desire,’” said Dart. “We’ll vet them. We won’t offer everybody, and say, ‘Please will you give them an opportunity?’”

The prisoners themselves are grateful – not only to leave the jail to go to work, but also to receive what many perceive as a second chance.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot,” said Diwan Wilson, 19, who was serving time for a drug-related offense. “I wouldn’t mind doing something like this when I get out.”

“It’s easy to get a job on a construction site,” added Angelo Langston, 19, who earned an Occupational Health and Safety Administration certification and life-changing skills while he was locked up. ”I was given a second chance.”

In addition, the irony is not lost on prisoners who see the demolition project as helping to destroy abandoned buildings that, in the past, they themselves may have used for criminal purposes.

“They always have been magnets for crime,” said Dart, referring to the vacant properties. Included on his list of houses to be demolished was a building where a young girl was raped in 2015.

“We’re usually the ones tearing neighborhoods like this one apart,” said DeAngelo Reed, 26, who was sentenced to a year in jail for burglary, during a break while working in a south Chicago suburb. “It’s not like we’re rebuilding, but at least this is the groundwork for someone to come in and make this neighborhood look better.”

Officials in Chicago suburbs have praised the initiative as a way to eliminate urban blight and make their cities safer while not costing taxpayers a penny. In the suburb of Dolton, Mayor Riley Rogers said he was worried about abandoned buildings near local schools, but didn’t have money in the budget to do anything about it. Cook County prisoners took care of the problem.

“It helps us in regards to bringing our community back,” said Rogers. “It helps us in terms of safety of the neighbors around these blighted homes. It helps us to make the school area safe. It’s just a win-win situation for us.”

“What’s somewhat unique about what we’re doing is we’ve figured out a strategy to try to help these towns that can’t help themselves,” added Sheriff Dart.

The problem of abandoned properties is not a small one. In the Chicago Heights suburb, Mayor David Gonzalez said his town and two surrounding communities have an abandoned home rate of 16%, one of the highest in the region. Gonzalez said the city’s 2015 fiscal year budget included $200,000 to maintain or demolish buildings – money that, he said, doesn’t go far when professional work crews charge $10,000 to $15,000 to remove just one property.

Gonzalez indicated that at least three more abandoned houses in his area were on the Sheriff’s Office’s demolition list. “This gives us some help we badly need. On the other side, they’re working a program that actually rehabilitates and gives people some practical experience.”

Of course, if prisoners involved in the program were paid fair wages for their labor, upon release they would have a small nest egg to help them rebuild their lives – which would further reduce the chance they will reoffend. But that, apparently, is too much to hope for.


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