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Robert West: A Second Chance

Wed, Jan 2, 2013

As a 17-year-old youth with no criminal background, I was convicted of theft and sentenced to a one year probation. The first 60 days of the probation I spent incarcerated. Two weeks after serving the 60-day sentence, I was again in the judicial system, this time charged with a more serious crime of armed robbery. Later, I was convicted of robbery and sentenced to 2 to 8 years in the Illinois State Penitentiary. Forty years later and drug dependent, I have been convicted of drug possession and sentenced to two years probation. I am currently serving six months in an alternative sentencing program.

The program runs Monday through Friday and requires that I wear an electronic monitor on my ankle so that my whereabouts can be tracked at all times. My day begins with an 8 a.m. check-in with my assigned investigator. This is followed by substance abuse meetings all morning. At 11 we break for lunch –prison standard issue of a bologna sandwich and three pieces of bread – Frito’s if we’re lucky. The afternoon is spent in lectures and discussions on drug-related issues. We are dismissed at 2:45, given bus tokens, and required to be home by 5. Between 5 p.m. and the following morning I am not allowed out of my home.

The program provides substance abuse counselors who share with us their information, knowledge, experience, and encourage us on this journey of change. The counselors and staff members are competent and dedicated. Most of them have lived a life on the streets and have witnessed the ravages of substance abuse. If I had been able to be part of this program 40 years ago I may have been spared my life of crime, addiction and incarceration.

Initially, I was set in my ways and resisted the program. I didn’t understand what it was all about. I have since realized the strength of the program and am allowing it to change my thinking, attitudes and behavior. Each day I am reminded of the consequences of a life of drug dependence and the power and freedom of making positive choices.

Over and over I hear about what will happen if I continue to maintain my harmful attitudes and beliefs and behaviors (dealing drugs is the only way to get money) that will inevitably result in self-destructive outcomes (repeated incarcerations). I need to be reminded each day that there is another way to live. Without those reminders I am more likely to continue the behavior that has been detrimental to myself, my family and my community.

Each night I return home. If I violate the program rules I can lose that privilege and will be put in lock-up. Every week I am required to do random urine tests to reveal illicit use of drugs and/or alcohol. I know the consequences of “testing dirty.” I’ve lived behind bars. It is not a place I want to go.

The participants in the program run a full range of ages though most of them are young gang members between the ages of 17 and 25 who are in for selling drugs. They are living the life I lived as a youth, a life of violence and crime. Many times I am struck by their intelligence and ability to elevate themselves to a higher plateau when given this second chance to apply themselves and realize a different road map to success. Some of them are finishing their high school programs while in this program. Older participants have the chance to earn their GED. There are also recycling classes, welding classes, chances to work in the organic gardens, as well as classes in spirituality and meditation. I am inspired when I see young men change. Those who persevere are successful, aspiring to different kinds of lives and renewing and confirming a sense of direction that is about potential and hope.

I know too well how hard it is to change. Unfortunately for many men, even this program will not spare them from themselves. Some will continue the self-destructive behavior that brought them to the jail and will face repeated incarcerations for the rest of their lives. As an older person I have experienced the consequences of a lifetime of addiction and crime. Now, after four decades, I am ready to change. Like me, it may take a lifetime of failure and crime before some of the younger men can recognize this program as a lifeline for a different life.

I deeply appreciate the network of people who make this program possible. Their vision is giving me a chance to live a life free of addiction and crime. I am lucky to be here. I am thankful to have been given a second chance.

Robert West is 57 years old. He is a native Chicagoan who was raised in the Dearborn Homes Projects on 29th and State. During Robert’s childhood the Projects deteriorated and became an underworld of criminal activity. By the age of 16 violence had become a part of Robert’s life. Robert’s first incarceration occurred when he was convicted of theft at the age of 17 and given a year’s probation. That same year Robert was again in the courts and was convicted of armed robbery and spent the next three years behind bars. Robert has spent the last four months in an alternative sentencing program in Illinois. Robert has had no formal training in writing. He is grateful and excited to launch his writing career with StreetWise.


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