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Roy Pierson, a prep cook at Hecky's Barbecue in Evanston, looks forward to a new start after 25 years in and out of prison.

Legislation helping ex-offenders shows promise, but some say more funding is needed

by Rebecca LaFlure and John Santore
Dec 05, 2012


John V. Santore/MEDILL

Roy Pierson spent 25 years in and out of prison. He is trying hard not to return.

John V. Santore/MEDILL

Dr. Fred Nance of the EMAGES program, and Jason Piper, an EMAGES participant, talk about its efficacy, as well as life after prison.

Rebecca LaFlure and John V. Santore/MEDILL

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago) discusses the history behind the authorship and passage of the Second Chance Act.     

For Fred Nance, Change is Very Personal

Fred Nance said he was in prison when his mother called to tell him his wife had been murdered.

Nance’s nine year old daughter found her body behind their Englewood home.


“Her friends told her her mother was in the alley sleeping,” he said. Nance said he wasn’t let out of prison for her funeral.

“I was an angry person, I think, all during that time,” he said.  

It’s all part of a biography that helps him relate to the ex-offenders he counsels today as part of the Establishing, Managing and Generating Effective Services, Inc. program on Chicago’s South Side.

His wife’s death came two decades after Nance dropped out of high school to join the Marines as a way to support her and their child.

Nance said he started using drugs during 1969 while deployed in Vietnam. He also refused to fight, leading to an undesirable discharge from the military that hurt his future job prospects and contributed to decades of small jobs and arrests for small crimes.

And the drug use continued, part of what he described as the “criminal thinking and criminal behavior” that became part of his life.

When he was arrested at 42, he still didn’t have a high school degree, but he did have cocaine and heroin in his car, along with a registered gun. He was incarcerated for nearly three years, time he spent earning his G.E.D. and starting work on a bachelors degree. After getting out, he earned a masters and, eventually, a doctorate.

He credits his religious faith, as well as his own work ethic, with helping him put his life on a new path.


“A person has to want to be rehabilitated on his own,” Nance said, “no matter how many programs they have inside those prisons.”

Even so, he’s a strident supporter of programming directed at former prisoners, which he said is a key part of the fight to keep them from winding up back in jail. And he advocates for greater funding for rehabilitative programs like the one he directs.

For Nance, education is a special focus. He is 63, and didn't receive his doctorate until 2009. But he encourages younger former offenders to focus on school. He said some of the men and women he works with provide excuses for why they can't get a degree.


"And then every explanation they give me about why they can’t do it, I can tell them how they can do it," he said. 

Today, Nance is remarried. He has raised four girls. The daughter who found her mother's body is grown and getting a masters degree of her own.

“Things can turn around and be different,” he said.

When he was a young child growing up on Chicago’s West side, Roy Pierson promised himself that he would resist the lure of drugs and gangs.

But by high school, he was stealing CDs and gym shoes from train carts. At 17, he was charged with auto theft — the first of a string of felonies that took him in and out of prison for 25 years.

Pierson fell into the same cycle each time he was released from prison: He would return to the same neighborhood in which he was raised, grow frustrated with a lack of money and places to live, and resort to selling drugs again. The issue was compounded by his struggles to stay sober.

Now out of prison for more than a year and living in A Safe Haven sober living community, Pierson, 44, is trying hard not to return.

“This transition is about my children,” said Pierson, who works as a prep cook at Hecky’s Barbecue, a restaurant in Evanston owned by Hecky Powell. “I really appreciate Mr. Hecky because he gave me an opportunity. He’s building up my hope that if you work hard you can redeem yourself.”

The revolving door of ex-offenders going in and out of prison remains a major problem in Chicago. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago), who represents more former offenders than any other member of the Illinois Congressional delegation, authored legislation that aims to help former inmates transition to life after incarceration.

The Second Chance Act, passed by Congress in 2008, has already channeled hundreds of millions of federal dollars to programs nationwide. President George W. Bush signed the bipartisan bill, and advocates emphasize apparent early successes.

But some local observers offer a nuanced picture of the act’s impact: While the legislation has promise, its long-term impact will be limited without more funding from Congress.

“The goals and objectives are very worthwhile, and it’s an approach that’s needed,” said Malcolm Young, director of the Northwestern University Law School Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Prison Reentry Strategies program. But “the success rates are marginal. The programs are relatively small and short term. It’s difficult to get the kind of evaluations out of them that people actually want.”

The revolving door of prison re-entry

In 2011, more than 30,500 men and women left Illinois prisons and jails, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. About half of them are likely to return to prison within three years, further disrupting families and communities.

Each year, thousands return to Chicago neighborhoods like Austin, North Lawndale, and East Garfield Park, all contained within Davis’ congressional district.

In the late 1990s, Davis and his staff began addressing the epidemic plaguing his district.

“We are the most incarcerated nation on the face of the Earth,” Davis said. “If these people become contributing members of society, then they become assets, as opposed to the liabilities that we know them as being.”

The Second Chance Act directs money to the Departments of Justice, Labor, and Health and Human Services to fund efforts to fight addiction, provide job training, and address the challenges faced by those returning to free society.

Between 2009 and 2011, the Second Chance Act funded 11 grants to Illinois nonprofits and government entities, totaling $5.1 million.

A September 2012 report by the Council of State Governments credited the act with helping many states decrease the number of former prisoners ending up back behind bars. In 2011, 47 percent of ex-offenders in Illinois returned to prison within three years of release, compared with 51.3 percent in 2010.

Second Chance Act limitations

But the bill has its limitations. According to the Justice Center, $63 million was allocated this year to be spread across 50 states.

Young said this leaves little money for states to create the kind of massive, long-term programs needed to address such a large-scale problem.

He noted that the grants only fund programs — which often take time to get up and running — for a designated time period, and it’s up to the program administrators to find other funding sources to sustain them long term.

Fred Nance, who was on the Second Chance advisory committee started by Davis that helped develop the bill, understands the stress of continuing a program after grant funding ends.

Nance served as the program coordinator for a mentoring program for sex offenders. Funded by a $253,061 grant from the Second Chance Act, Establishing, Managing and Generating Effective Services, Inc. (EMAGES), provided counseling and clinical therapy to sex offenders, and helped them with transitional services, such as housing, job placement, and literacy classes.

The effort, launched in November 2010, operated until grant funding ended at the end of October.

Nance is now asking the Cook County Jail to pay about $40,000 a year to sustain the program, which has served 73 people since it began.

Nance said 28 percent of people who went through the program returned to prison, a rate significantly lower than state and national averages. None went back for another sex offense, he said.

Jason Piper is one of those success stories. A high school drop-out, Piper was arrested at 19 and incarcerated for 17 years. He has since received his high school and associate’s degree, and EMAGES set him up with a culinary internship which turned into a full-time job—his first since coming out of prison.

He’s also in his third year of counseling with the organization, which he says is helping him overcome psychological stress that had been with him since childhood and contributed to his criminal behavior.

“It’s like two different people,” Piper said. “Back then, I really didn’t have any confidence in myself at all. I didn’t have any belief that I could do anything."

"They made me into a more complete person,” he said.

Nance said the program offered a support system for the clients it served, like Jason, and he worries they could commit another crime if that support system is gone.

“I’m sitting on pins and needles waiting for someone to call me,” Nance said. Reducing the number of former prisoners who return is not hard to do, but it does need funding, he said.

The funding question

Young said in order to get large-scale results, states would need to put significant sums of money into continuing and expanding Second Chance Act programs like EMAGES. The tragedy, he said, is many of the programs around the state that helped prevent former inmates from returning to prison have been weakened significantly by budget cuts and prison overcrowding.

“The scale of the problem suggests that a state like Illinois should be putting tens of millions of dollars into this,” Young said. “You know the state is in an economic crisis. It’s not putting that kind of money into anything extra like this at all.”

The federal funding outlook is not much better. Davis said the Second Chance Act has never received the amount of funding he thinks it needs, and he can't predict what will happen beyond 2013.

Even so, Mark O’Brien, a policy analyst with the Legal Action Center, which advocates for the legal rights of people with criminal records, said the Second Chance Act is a work in progress, and there is benefit to allowing organizations to try new ways of helping former prisoners re-enter society.

O’Brien expects a study of Second Chance Act programs and their effectiveness to be released next year.

“I think we’ll find this when the Second Chance Act report comes out, there are some programs that didn’t work,” O’Brien said. “It’s about getting the right program, at the right time, for the right person.”

The report, he said, could allow agencies to replicate successful programs that would help more people like Roy Pierson and Jason Piper.

Piper said EMAGES and the Second Chance Act program have transformed his life.

“I definitely see myself as a person who can be whatever I want to be,” he said. “They took a person with no life and gave them one.”


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