Governor Bruce Rauner has pledged to reduce the state prison population by 25% over the course of the next ten years. At present there are over 400 people in Champaign County on state parole. If Rauner makes good on his promise (or even half good), we can count on several hundred more people fresh from prison in our community. While freeing people from the Department of Corrections would be a great step forward, such a move would prompt another important set of challenges: how do people find their way back into the community after being away for so many years? To make matters worse, people with felony convictions face many unique obstacles. Many are banned from access to SNAP (food stamps for life). In Champaign, certain categories of people returning from prison are not allowed to live in public housing, even if their family resides there. Although Illinois has officially banned the box (that question on job applications that asks about criminal background) many employers still balk at the prospect of hiring anyone with a criminal record, especially if they have committed what is considered a violent crime.
FirstFollowers, a new reentry program in Champaign County, aims to address some of these issues. The project grew out of years of discussions within the county board and in the community about the need for more reentry programs. Two key initiatives sparked the foundation of FirstFollowers. First, the local group, Citizens with Conviction, mobilized people with felony convictions to testify before the City of Urbana’s Human Relations Commission to get the box taken off all employment applications in the city. In late 2013, dozens of people came forward to speak out about their experience of being turned away by employers simply because they checked the “yes” box on an employment application, indicating they had a felony conviction. Moving testimony by the formerly incarcerated, their family members as well as employers demonstrated how answering “yes” often meant the application was discarded. The testimony by these individuals convinced the city powers to pass a special ban the box measure in Urbana which is even stronger than the state measure. No employer, private or public, is allowed to ask about a person’s criminal background until a concrete job offer is on the table. Violation of this can lead to a fine against the employer.
Second, FirstFollowers was the product of lengthy deliberations within the county board’s Community Justice Task Force. In 2013 the Community Justice Task Force, which included Carol Ammons, the newly elected local state representative, recommended the formation of a reentry program based on the principle of peer mentoring. According to the Task Force report.
First Followers aims to follow the peer mentoring model, using formerly incarcerated people as the organizers of the program as well as the providing the direct support to clients. The principle of peer mentoring means that those who have been through the process of doing time in prison and subsequently turning their lives around post-incarceration, are the ideal people to mentor those who are just beginning their transition back to the community.
Marlon Mitchell, who grew up in Champaign, has been the driving force behind First Followers. In a recent interview with Seon Williams on his WEFT radio program, “Unity in the Community,” Mitchell explained his motivation, “I come from the community. It’s affected me, my family directly.” He described how in 2012 he started attending county board meetings where the discussion was focusing on building a $20 million jail. Mitchell went home and spent time analyzing the county jail website, looking at the population that was incarcerated. He found that more than 50% of the people were Black. “I started to educate myself as to why these things are happening.” From then on, Mitchell began to meet with a range of people in the community to punt the idea of a reentry program.
The program launched in February of this year with a well-attended gathering at Bethel AME Church in Champaign where First Followers in based. Another FirstFollowers volunteer, Tamika Davis, also spoke to the crowd at the launch. She talked about how after spending eight and a half years in federal prison she came home determined to re-connect to her family and avoid the situations that would land her back behind bars. Davis now works at the University of Illinois and views FirstFollowers as an opportunity to help other young women get their life “back on track.”
At present FirstFollowers offers drop-in sessions on Tuesday and Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. They are open to all people returning from prison, as well as the family members and loved ones of those touched by incarceration. Their current activities focus largely on assisting people with searching for employment, getting proper identification and re-connecting with their families. In the future, they also intend to mobilize people impacted by incarceration to advocate for their own rights to be treated as fully-fledged citizens, as people who have paid their debt to society and deserve equal opportunity in the worlds of employment, education and all other spheres.
Those who wish to avail themselves of the services of FirstFollowers or who would like to help the organization can email firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by Bethel AME Tuesday or Friday afternoons from 1 to 5 p.m. Bethel AME is located at 401 E. Park St. (corner 4th) in Champaign.