West Side program helps ex-offenders get a second chance

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By Wendy Wohlfeill

Charles Ezzard speaks with ease and confidence, pausing from time-to-time as if visually sifting through the past chapters of his life. He recounts times of hardship, yet immediately changes pace when speaking about his future. His face lights up as he states his goals, such as finishing school and giving back to the community.

Ezzard sits in a bustling office in Austin, while snow falls outside on a brisk winter afternoon. Inside this well-kept space, half  of a dozen men sit at computers placed against one wall searching on-line job postings, while others work on resumes and speak to caseworkers.

The one thing that makes this office different from many others, is that its clients, including Ezzard, have one thing in common: they are newly released prisoners. They’ve come to the Westside Health Authority’s Prisoner Re-Entry Center to get a second chance at life.

Ezzard, 47, who was born and raised in Austin, has been a client of the program for two years now, after being released from an Illinois prison after serving 19 months. He was convicted of sexual assault with a deadly weapon, a Class X Felony.

The Westside Health Authority’s Prisoner Re-Entry Center assisted over 10,000 clients last year and has been working in the Austin neighborhood for nearly 10 years. The far West Side community has the highest number of ex-offenders in the state of Illinois, and according to the Westside Health Authority, there are over 300 individuals returning to Austin from prison each month.

“There are so many ex-offenders out there that are just so frustrated with the system, and they’ve lost hope. They don’t even know a second chance is available to them,” Ezzard said.

Ald. Ed Smith (28th) said it is often hard for released prisoners to turn their lives around because they don’t know where to start.

“It’s sad, they can’t find work, no one will take a chance on them because the state says they are criminals for the rest of their lives, and that’s not fair,” Smith said.

Ezzard said the label of being an ex-offender, in many cases, affects the way a person is seen for a lifetime.

“It makes it really hard to sit down and have a conversation with another person because you are wondering: ‘How do they see me?’” he said. “Do they visualize me only as this deviant person?”

Ezzard has been volunteering with Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) for just over a year now, assisting her with community outreach programs for at-risk residents in Austin.

Mitts said she believes everyone should have the opportunity for a second chance.

“In our kind of community we have to meet the needs of these people because they represent us. We can’t run from it,” she said.

“He is a great person that understood that he wanted to turn his life around. He just needs to make sure to surround himself with people who are doing the same,” Mitts said.

Ezzard said a second chance was given to him through the help of the center, where he is now working toward lifelong goals. He is currently enrolled in Harold Washington College and expects to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in 2012. After graduation he plans to attend law school in hopes of working to help other ex-offenders. Prior to incarceration, Ezzard drove semi-trucks cross country for a living.

“I want to roll up my sleeves,” he said. “I want all the pressure, and I want to whine about classes like other students because I want to earn this degree.”

The program, funded by the city of Chicago, is run by a faith-based organization that offers assistance in all areas of re-entry such as: job placement, training, mentorship, GED and ACT classes and counseling.

Ezzard, who received mentoring and job placement assistance over the last two years, will continue to work with the center and said without its help he would most likely have given up.

“Had I not been here, I probably would have gotten frustrated and said screw it, just take me back,” Ezzard said. “Everyone has the right, if you’re going to be a law abiding citizen, to start again—and that’s what I’m doing.”


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