For Women with a Past, Reentry Programs Are the Way Back into a Normal Life

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CHICAGO — It’s 4 AM, and Twania Waddell is wide awake.

While most are still nestled in bed, soaking in the last few precious hours of sleep before sunrise signals the start of another workday, Waddell, 53, is just now heading back to her South Side apartment. She’s already spent an exhausting eight-hour shift cleaning, refueling, and parking buses for the Chicago Transit Authority.

It’s not glamorous, but it’s a far cry from where she was just three years ago—jail.

I’ve been through a lot of situations most people wouldn’t survive.
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“I think of it as: God has given me two lives in one lifetime,” Waddell says. “I’ve been through a lot of situations most people would not survive.”

Since May 2011, Waddell has been one of 820 people facing barriers to employment—including felony convictions—who have participated in the CTA’s Second Chance Program. The initiative began in 2007 to help people reenter the job market through mentoring and skills training.

And to help prevent ex-convicts from re-offending, more reentry programs like it are needed, she says.

According to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, 48 percent of those released from prison in Illinois each year wind up back in the legal system within three years, and 19 percent recidivate within the first year.

As of June 2016, 44,817 people were confined in Illinois’ prisons, about 6 percent of whom were women. Another 27,794 were on parole, of whom 2,428—or 8.7 percent—were women, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Initiatives like CTA’s Second Chance and a new pilot program recently introduced by Gov. Bruce Rauner, aimed at giving formerly incarcerated Illinoisans entrepreneur training, are key in keeping people out of prison, Waddell says.

“I think [Rauner] is making a good decision in that, because believe me when I tell you that when we’re in jail, we don’t want to come back out doing the same thing,” Waddell says. “But if there’s nothing left, and people don’t give us a chance, we’re going to go back to what we know.”

 

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‘We All Deserve A Second Chance’

After years of struggling with drug addiction and the resulting behaviors that landed her inside the state’s prison system—like theft, forgery, and drug charges—the opportunity to work a steady job was a chance Waddell had almost given up.

We don’t think we’re worthy sometimes because of the things we’ve experienced.
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“A lot of [women] have been degraded for so long, used and abused, that we sometimes think that’s the right thing; that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Waddell says. “We don’t think we’re worthy sometimes because of the things we’ve experienced.”

But after her last theft charge the day after Christmas in 2014, Waddell says “something clicked.”

She was released on house arrest to A Safe Haven in Rogers Park, a transitional and supportive housing program that linked her to resources which helped keep her in recovery and get back on her feet.

With a renewed commitment to sobriety, Waddell immersed herself deeper into her program and eventually began taking social work classes at Harold Washington College.

To pay for those classes, she gained employment with UPS as a seasonal delivery worker, though despite her supervisor's recommendation, the company chose not to hire her full-time once the holidays were over. Her record stood in the way, she says.

Discouraged but not deterred, Waddell received a recommendation to try the CTA’s Second Chance Program.

 
 

After completing a two-week job readiness course in July 2016, the CTA hired her. The rules were simple: no lateness, no days off, and no messing up.

“I said, ‘This is my way in; once they let me in I am going to become permanent,’” Waddell says.

A year later, her impressive work and determination earned her a full-time spot with the transit authority. This summer, Waddell also earned herself a trip to Florida, $100, and other prizes for taking first place at the CTA’s annual Jamboree event, in which employees compete to see who can best clean their station.

Now, with her own apartment, 2016 car, and four-legged companion King by her side, her confidence is higher than ever.

I am just so excited about this life now... I won’t ever give it up, ever.
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“I am just so excited about this life now,” Waddell says. “I won’t ever give it up, ever.”

Jessica Ingrahm, a 28-year-old Chicago native, agreed, saying her involvement with a reentry program has positioned her to achieve her dreams of being an author and public speaker.

After enduring a rough childhood living in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, Ingrahm found herself in prison in 2013. She was released in 2014 and sought help from The Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based organization which aims to reduce recidivism through employment and other resources.

When Ingrahm found a job on her own, the foundation helped her purchase work shoes and a uniform, and provided her with two weeks’ worth of bus fare for the commute.

Today, she’s attending Truman College and writing her second book.

“I definitely do believe more programs like this need to be provided,” Ingrahm said. “As human beings, we all make mistakes. No one is perfect; we fall short. And I believe we all deserve a second chance. God looks at us all the same, we just make mistakes.”

 
 Twania Waddell and her dog, King.

Twania Waddell and her dog, King.

 
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Reentry Programs Provide ‘More Than Just A Job’

Waddell’s success is the exact outcome the CTA hopes for, says spokesman Stephen Mayberry.

And more programs like it are needed, Waddell and Ingrahm say.

According to the CTA, over 230 Second Chance participants have been hired for full-time work with the company. For its impact, the program received the country’s largest Ladders of Opportunity grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration in 2015. 

It’s a program the transit authority takes pride in, Mayberry says, and it provides people “who so desperately need the opportunity” with “much more than just a job.”

“It is a holistic job-readiness and career development program that not only puts participants to work, but also provides them with training, mentoring, networking, and educational opportunities that they wouldn’t receive anywhere else,” Mayberry says. “Through job-specific training, participants learn about workplace safety, proper cleaning techniques, and workplace professionalism.”

Rauner has also recently launched an initiative to give formerly incarcerated Illinoisans a leg-up in the business world.

Now in its pilot phase, the Pathway to Enterprise for Returning Citizens (PERC) program is working with IDOC to screen and identify 125 people returning to communities on Chicago’s south and west sides and provide them with comprehensive training to operate their own businesses.

“That’s what we need,” Ingrahm, an entrepreneur, says. “Life is too short. I don’t believe we were put on this earth to work for somebody else and help them achieve their dreams. Everybody has a talent and a dream, and I believe we need more programs to make more business owners.”

Entrepreneurs will not only receive training from Chicago organizations such as The Safer Foundation of Illinois, Bethel New Life in the Austin neighborhood, Chatham Business Association, North Lawndale Employment Network, and Sunshine Enterprises—but those who successfully complete the program will be eligible for a $50,000 privately-funded business loan, according to the governor’s office.

This program not only allows us to create jobs in underserved communities, it also drives down the recidivism rate and sets families on the right course.
— Governor Bruce Rauner
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“One of my most important goals since taking office has been to fix our broken criminal justice system and give people a real chance at success when they are released from prison,” Rauner said a statement. “This program not only allows us to create jobs in underserved communities, it also drives down the recidivism rate and sets families on the right course.”

John Baldwin, director of IDOC, says many of those incarcerated “have entrepreneurial minds,” but once released need a place in the community to hone their skills—a sentiment echoed by Waddell.

“I think [PERC] is a great idea,” Waddell says. “When something snaps in your mind that says, ‘I don’t want to get high [anymore],’ once you break away from it, most of the times, your intentions are to do good.”

 
 
 
Jennifer Maine