BY LA’RISA LYNCH
NNPA NEWS SERVICE
CHICAGO – Black men locked up in Illinois prisons make up more than half the population and 63 percent of them are fathers with minor children.
Wesley Cooke was one of them. He was just a teenager when he became a father to a baby girl. And when she was only 5 months old, he found himself incarcerated for what he described as “young reckless” behavior.
“That was probably the hardest thing I had to deal with in my life – leaving somebody who absolutely didn’t do anything to me,” Cooke said. “I caused so much damage to my child. That ate at me for 16 years.”
But his transformation came from an unlikely place – inside prison walls. Those who were enemies on streets were friends on the inside. He said a select group of men guided him and things turned around. Education, and his daughter now 24 and in college became his motivation. Cooke now owns a cell phone business and has a newborn son.
“What it did do, along with other things, is that it taught me fatherhood not just for me, but being a father for other kids,” he said, noting there is only one way to reach youngsters so they won’t fall prey to the streets. “We got to be fathers and mothers to everybody’s kids,” he said.
His story is not unfamiliar to agencies that provide services for the formerly incarcerated. Social service providers want to find ways to leverage fatherhood to help ex-offenders stay off the streets, be involved in their children’s lives and do better socially, said Lori Crowder, executive director of the Alliance of Local Service Organizations (ALSO).
Social service providers, she said, have a “profound opportunity to impact individuals and entire communities” when they “recognize the role of father as a positive pro-social motivator for men with children.”
“What we’re saying is relationship matters,” said Crowder. Her organization works collaboratively with other Chicago-based organizations on violence prevention and intervention. Fatherhood may not eliminate the social factors that lead to contact with the criminal justice system but it plays an important part in building a community, she pointed out.
Her group hosted, “Relationship Matters: Black Dads, the Streets and the Justice System,” an April conference held at the University of Illinois in Chicago to discuss the perils Black fathers face once they exit prison.
Topics ranged from social factors that create the streets to prison pipeline for Black fathers, drug laws’ collusion in that process and the importance of having familial connection in and out of prison as key to violence prevention.
Traced back to slavery
Social expectations of Black fathers have not changed, said Dr. William Oliver, an associate professor at Indiana University’s Criminal Justice Department.
For the most part, Black fathers are expected to love, provide, protect and guide their children even with ever changing social norms such as women-headed households and more female breadwinners, he said.
Those expectations, however, have been under attack by systemic forces going as far back as slavery and has hindered the achievement of responsible Black fatherhood, said Oliver.
Since slavery, Black fathers were disenfranchised from their families, denied basic human rights under oppressive Jim Crow laws and criminalized by the “War on Drugs.”
Even their ability to earn a living to support their families was compromised by the de-industrialization, suburbanization and globalization of jobs that were moved out of urban areas, he added.
“All of that has impacted the ability of men to secure employment that would allow them to achieve these fatherhood expectations that we have,” said Oliver.
But a glimmer of hope during the Civil Rights era showed if Black men “were vested with their civil rights, they could be men,” he added.
However, a culture shift occurred that forced Black fathers to turn to the streets in search of a livelihood, Oliver noted. That shift increased Black fathers’ chances to engage in illegal activities and contact with the criminal justice system. Black men who are vested in the streets lose chances for employment, education, connections to families but open the streets to prison pipeline, he continued.
“It’s hard to do fatherhood at any high level when one is invested in the streets.”
Impact on family
Black children are seven times more likely than White children to have a parent in prison, he told conference attendees.
Prison affects family formations that become more challenging once a father returns from prison, including laws making it harder for them to transition back into society, added Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.
Some laws prevent ex-offenders – even those with nonviolent offenses – from voting, volunteering at their child’s school, obtaining health care, employment or housing, Johnson said. If a formerly incarcerated father cannot find positive activities, he often returns to the streets.
“Even those individuals with the best of intentions to try to pick up where they left off or to start moving in a new direction are often hampered by … incarceration,” he added.
Johnson urged re-entry programs to not only help returning ex-offenders find work or housing but to also help them re-establish family ties. Part of that process includes advocating for more sensible prison sentencing, especially for nonviolent low-level offenses.
Myriad of hurdles
He noted mandatory minimum sentences need to be repealed, more in-prison drug treatment programs are needed and expungement should be an option. Finding a balance where laws are less punitive for nonviolent offenders can help maintain family bonds while incarcerated and upon release, Johnson added.
Black fathers returning from prison face a myriad of hurdles, but the desire to have relationships with their children is strong, said Khalid B. Scott, of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. TASC provides recovery services for those with substance abuse and mental health issues especially those who have contact with the prison system. TASC also co-sponsored the conference.
Scott, a clinical supervisor, works in the recovery coach program and has seen these challenges firsthand. His program ensures that birth dads receive drug treatment in order to get custody of their children from child protective services. The program provides parenting and domestic violence programs and helps find stable housing.
“We try to wrap services around the dad and the mom in order for them to get their kids back and learn that they have to parent a different way,” Scott said.
Lack good support system
But he noted that the men in the program do better than the women. Scott said men are more focused because they don’t want to be part of the system anymore. They believe part of being a man is taking care of their business, he said.
They take the position of “I got to do what I got to do, get what I need to get done, to get my kids and be out of here,” Scott said. Men, he added, don’t like professionals telling them what to do with their lives.
Most men returning from prison want to “transform” their lives but just lack a good support system to achieve it, said Dr. Joseph Strickland, of UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work. He described that support system as a good social network that includes ties to people who have stable and healthy lifestyles.
Awards for ex-offenders
He noted public policy discourages ex-felons from having contact with other ex-felons even if they transformed their lives.
“But it is important that people maintain ties to people that are incarcerated. It’s essential for them to know what’s going on in mainstream society,” said Scott.
At the program’s conclusion, 21 ex-offenders were presented with awards for their community involvement and were recognized as examples of rebuilding and reconnecting their lives after incarceration.