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Transformation: My Own, My Social Network, and Our Communities

Joseph Strickland, PhD

The incarceration of numerous friends and relatives (blood relations and fictive kin) created the entry point for my involvement in the criminal justice system. I was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago. I spent my formative years in the Roseland community which has in more recent years been referred to by Chicago rappers and street folk as the “Wild Hundreds.” In the mid-1970s, while I was in high school, there began a wave of Black males from Chicago being incarcerated. Large groups of men from my community—only a few years older than me—were arrested, jailed, and sent to prison. These were young men who had lived in our community, had been upperclassmen in the schools I attended, or who were known through their involvement in sports. Some were guys who just hung out on the corners, in pool halls, or in the parks. The year I graduated from high school, several of my closest friends were sent to prison. A close friend’s murder conviction caused my mother to abruptly move the family to Oakland, California. It was my mother’s method of protecting me from whatever activities might cause me to become incarcerated.

The incarceration of numerous friends and relatives (blood relations and fictive kin) created the entry point for my involvement in the criminal justice system. I was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago. I spent my formative years in the Roseland community which has in more recent years been referred to by Chicago rappers and street folk as the “Wild Hundreds.”

Although my mother had reason to be concerned, the activities that would eventually lead to my incarceration were the furthest thing from my mind. While I did have numerous friends who were incarcerated, I had just as many who were in college or gainfully employed. Even though I maintained contact with my friends in prison, my social interactions were engaged with individuals who inspired me to focus on a career. I chose to become a computer operator. An entry-level job as a computer operator led to being promoted to software consultant. I relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, and in the eight years I was there I became quite successful and became a father. On Christmas Day, 1988, my father died unexpectedly. He was only fifty years old. I was encouraged to get bereavement counseling, but I felt that I was too strong a person. During my father’s funeral, I was overwrought with sadness and sought refuge in the limousine provided by the funeral home. I was joined by two family members who provided me with heroin to medicate my grief. After my introduction to heroin, my life slowly began to change. I moved my family from Boston and back to Chicago. I reconnected with friends who had been released from prison and became involved in a drug trafficking enterprise. On September 3, 1994, I was arrested and sent to prison seven months later.

Many people land in prison because they were wrongly convicted or racially profiled. That was not my circumstance. Initially, I had convinced myself that I got caught up in crime because of a moral lapse. However, after self-reflection and self-examination, I realized it was not that I had a minor slip in morals, it was because my personal definition of what was morally right or morally wrong was too expansive. It was then that I knew I needed to transform my mind into a new way of thinking. At the same time, I knew that many of the men who were locked up with me had similar twisted thinking that needed to be corrected. However, I also knew that many of them came from circumstances that were far worse than mine. It was in prison that my work in criminal justice began to concentrate on building social networks of individuals focused on transforming their lives and supporting the transformation of their peers. I organized a group of prisoners that would meet once a week in the prison library and discuss books or articles about managing money, raising children, nutrition, etc. As a group, we encouraged each other to recruit other prisoners to be part of our group or form similar groups. Over time, there were over 50 members in the original group or subgroups. Only two former prisoners that were associated with the original group or subgroups returned to prison after their release.

When I was released from prison, my work continued. I began to expand my connection to incarcerated people by corresponding with prisoners throughout the state. I worked with former prisoners from the community where I had lived before my family moved to California. I partnered with other former prisoners from the community to set up a neighborhood office just two blocks from the 95th Street Red Line. The Red Line is a rapid transit line in Chicago, run by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) as part of the Chicago “L” system. The 95th Street stop was a drop-off point for bus service that transported men and women returning to Chicago from state prisons. The office provided released prisoners with clothing, toiletries, information on jobs and housing, and transportation. The office also had a prisoner hotline that allowed people in prison to ask someone to check on their families or provide referrals for lawyers who could assist with their appeals or grievances. Volunteers who worked at the office utilized their social networks to create programs that would pay for former prisoners to attend barber college and get Commercial Driver’s License training. My work at the 95th Street office helped former prisoners launch their own successful non-profit organizations. Two of these organizations have annual revenues of more than three million dollars.

It was in prison that my work in criminal justice began to concentrate on building social networks of individuals focused on transforming their lives and supporting the transformation of their peers.

In the second year after my release, I started a community-based organization focused on youth empowerment. Over 80% of the staff and volunteers were former prisoners. Only a small percentage of the youth who participated in the program went to jail or prison. As a result of that experience, I began working on community reentry. I also began to recruit released prisoners to enroll in college, and organized former prisoners with college degrees to serve as tutors and mentors. Within 10 years, over 90 youth and former prisoners who were directly part of the organization’s social network had obtained college degrees.

To fulfill the requirement of my doctoral degree from the University of Illinois Chicago, my dissertation research was The Use of Social Capital to Facilitate Employment for Black Male Ex-Offenders. As a researcher, my work has focused on how Black males recover from traumatic situations such as being in prison, being affiliated with street gangs, and becoming victims of gun violence. I was Principal Investigator on the study Preventing Recidivism of Boot Camp Participants, the purpose of which was to help boot camp administration enhance programming and services through an evaluation of how boot camp equips participants to reenter their communities, and determine the role boot camp plays in that preparation.

As Senior Researcher at the Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research, I have been able to use my experience in the creation of novel and impactful programming. I have led the organization of public forums on a variety of critical criminal justice issues, including the mobilization of formerly incarcerated mothers and young women, the prisoner reentry of Black fathers, removing barriers to reentry for older adult prisoners, and the role of education and vocational training in facilitating successful reentry. I also serve as Managing Editor for the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, a peer reviewed journal on policy and practice within the criminal justice system. In 2020, I contributed to launching the Center’s Academic Resource Program, which formalized the work I had done in mentoring and supporting former prisoners to enroll in and graduate from college.

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