Thursday, October 14, 2010

What will you be doing when you're 80?

"The degree of Civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons"
-Fyodor dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

As far as staying young goes, there is no surgical procedure, no vitamin, diet or exercise program that can beat passionate involvement doing something you love. Jim Chapman is heading for his 81st birthday. He's retired, which in Jim's case, means he only works 16 days sometimes.

Jim works with and for prisoners and ex-prisoners (or as he calls the latter, "newly returned citizens). An introduction to a book he's writing compares the situation of a newly released person with that of an Untouchable in India. Finding housing and a job, for an ex-convict is not just daunting - it approaches impossibility.

When someone has served their time and wants nothing more than to rejoin society and never see the inside of a prison again, they face employer policies, laws, rules, restrictions and societal attitudes that nearly guarantee that they have no access to shelter or work. Think of it: In the USA, as of January 2010, there were 1,404,053 people under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities. Most of these people serve their sentences and are released, so what does it mean (to them and to the rest of society) if they can't find shelter and have no means to make a living? What "degree of civilization" is implied by the fact that once a sentence is served, a person is punished by having the very means of survival pushed out of their reach?

Jim is one of those people you won't see on the news. One of the many people who don't talk about what's wrong - but stand up and do what they can:

By Chinta Strausberg

If you’re late for one of attorney James P. Chapman’s classes, you may think you’ve walked into a movie shoot because it is a reality check for returning citizens who may not know how to sell themselves to prospective employers.

Since 1954, Chapman was a trial and Appellate lawyer, and he has had a burning passion to help returning citizens for decades.
But his real joy is working in the communities with men and women in prison and those who are coming from prison. When asked why bother with returning citizens and those incarcerated, he said: “I don’t know. “All I know is that if there is a higher power…if there is an angel, it touched me…. It is the most fulfilling thing I’ve every done and I can’t tell you why,” Chapman said.

When I walked into his classroom, sponsored by the Cook County President’s Office of Employment and Training (P.O.E.T.) that is held each Friday from 10:30 a.m. to noon in Room 2260 of the 69 West Washington building, Chapman was directing two students engaged in a personnel role-playing skit.

One student pretended to be a would-be employer at a Target store looking for an inventory control clerk the other was the applicant. When the “employer” asked if the applicant had ever been arrested, the jock job seeker quipped, “Yes, for racketeering.”
Chapman cringed at his answer and grabbing his hair warned the students: “You never tell a prospective employer that you were once arrested for racketeering” which he said could mean he was once involved in an act or threat of murder, kidnapping, arson, robbery extortion, drugs, embezzlement and the list goes on. In the participant’s case, it turned out he had custody of his child and was trying to make the mother pay him for child support. Technically, his actions amounted to racketeering but Chapman taught them how to explain these acts in a softer and more acceptable way. Myron Colvin, communications manager for P.O.E.T., played the role of a prospective employer with a volunteer from the class. The role-playing continued under the watchful eye of Chapman. “Some words are too harsh,” he warned.

Chapman teaches a course entitled: “Life Transformation Through Communication” which is based on an interactive program where the participants speak, act and talk while learning the dynamics of effective communication. However, it is more than just speaking or writing.
“It’s how you enroll people in what you want…to touch, move and inspire people,” said Chapman. “Communications is much more than one of understanding your audience. It’s also how you speak differently to different audiences,” he explained.

Chapman said those returning from prison often are prevented from getting meaningful employment. “The attitudes of the public of potential employers are so negative based on false publicity, a kind of hysteria about dealing with ex-prisoners particularly those convicted of crimes of violence that barriers are set up to meaningful employment.”
Part of the course, he explained, is dealing with those issues and how you can convince a prospective employer that even though they have been in prison they are now a changed person, prepared to work hard and will be an honest and good employee. “This is very challenging,” Chapman admitted.

For the past five-years, Chapman has taught this course at the Stateville Correctional Center (located in Crest Hill, Illinois) he described as a “serious, old maximum security prison where people are doing very long sentences.”
There, he teaches 25 men once a week. “Even people in prison who are doing long sentences begin to learn how it is to have a more meaningful way of talking with other men in prison, with their families with people they are trying to get help from in the community,” he said....
Personally, I'd be thrilled to find something half as meaningful to do with the rest of my life. And when the roll call of daily evils is delivered on the evening news, I like to think about James Chapman and all the people like him who are, against staggering odds, working to change things.