A new city of Chicago office is aiming to help formerly incarcerated people reacclimate to life in the community after time behind bars.
Willette Benford, who has served time in prison herself, has been appointed to serve as Chicago’s director of re-entry. It’s a newly created role that was part of a $13 million initiative to support reentry services for people leaving prison.
“What’s first on my agenda is really listening to the community, the community that I come from, to really make decisions about us, with us,” said Benford. “So, what that means is just really touching base again with what people need when they come home.”
Benford said some of the needs people don’t talk about include mental health care, workforce development, finding employment and stable housing.
A 2018 report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council found that 43% of those released from prison each year recidivate within three years of release and 17% will recidivate within one year. Benford said those rates could be lower if formerly incarcerated people had the tools they needed to survive and be successful once leaving prison.
“I believe recidivism is a system word. It speaks to me having everything that I needed and then I went back to prison, which is a lie. A lot of times it’s difficult to talk about recidivism, prison and anything else without talking about race,” Benford said. “Black people make up 14% of the Illinois adult population, but over 54% of those incarcerated, and so when we talk about that, we have to also go to poverty, and so when you talk about somebody recidivating, it is saying that the people had what they needed and they ultimately went back to jail, that’s not true.”
Prior to this role, Benford led decarceration work for Live Free Illinois, an organization that works to end gun violence and mass incarceration. She started her new position with the city on May 31.
“I measure success by when individuals come home and they have reentered the city of Chicago, the resources that they need are made readily available for them through a seamless process, which is a one-stop shop so that I can get everything that I need,” she said.