CHICAGO — When Marlon Chamberlain was asked by his son’s teacher to volunteer as a field trip chaperone, he happily applied.
But Chamberlain’s application was denied because of his 25 year-old prison record.
“There are hundreds of laws that restrict [formerly incarcerated] people, who are denied opportunities for employment, housing and educational opportunities,” he says.
A new statewide campaign called Fully Free, launched at the end of June, aims to change the laws and stigmas that affect those with a criminal record.
Chamberlain, who is Fully Free’s campaign manager, says they want to introduce legislation to tackle harmful laws – which those working with the campaign call permanent punishments – and increase civic engagement.
According to a research report from Fully Free, there are 3.3 million adults in Illinois today that have been arrested or convicted of a crime since 1979. That report says there are 1,189 laws in Illinois that impact people’s access to employment, housing, education and other opportunities.
“We also want to really define our own narrative and really move away from the narrative that we sort of hear when we think about and talk about incarceration,” Chamberlain says.
Part of their plan involves local organizations throughout the state, such as Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities.
Toy Beasley, a Reentry Support Coordinator for the central Illinois branch of TASC, says the goal is to create clusters led by the community.
“I think that being connected with the Fully Free campaign will get the information out to the community and to help educate the community of why we’re doing this,” Beasley says.
Beasley’s current job involves reaching out to partners in Bloomington, such as the local NAACP chapter, government officials and the general community to get the information out.
Another organization and reentry program, First Followers in Champaign, is working with the campaign as well.
First Followers co-director James Kilgore says reentry programs provide resources that people should be getting from governments. For example, they helped a man after an eight-year sentence complete a certificate program at Parkland Community College, who now works in the University of Illinois’ Transportation & Automotive Services department.
“What we did wasn’t profound, but no one else would have done it,” Kilgore says.
Kilgore says Fully Free is about dismantling the systems that keep fear in place.
“All the times in your life where somebody disrespects you, somebody treats you badly, you feel ‘well, I better just swallow this one because if I start arguing with somebody, they can call the police on me,'” he says. “What we’re saying is that when you’ve done your time, you’ve done your time. You should be fully free.”
Kilgore says this campaign, along with local organizations, are vital because incarceration affects the entire community.
He says it’s also important to recognize how the obstacles that formerly incarcerated individuals face is a result of systemic racism.
“The community loses out because of mass incarceration,” Kilgore says. “When it’s a system, it’s not just hitting one individual or one household, it’s hitting a whole community. And we know it’s mostly the black community.”
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2017, African Americans made up 15% of Illinois’s population but made up 56% of the state’s prison population.
“No one’s even really accepting how racially structured the prison system is in Illinois,” Kilgore says.
Beasley says that the past year of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd has made conversations about racism easier. He says Fully Free would not be here today without that movement.
“My only concern is that we’ve got to keep the conversation going,” Beasley says. “We’ve got to keep knocking on those doors, got to keep hitting that pavement for this movement to continue to happen.”
Chamberlain says it’s exciting to build on these national movements and start trying to change things throughout the state, not just in Chicago, where a lot of criminal justice reform is usually centered.
“I’m all for having conversations about systemic racism, but I’m also about having conversations around how do we continue to build a movement to really dismantle a lot of the inequities and barriers that exist,” he says.
Ultimately, Chamberlain says it’s about building leaders to continue this movement for change.
“I think the approach that we’ve developed is that people around the state can continue this work from a more proactive approach versus waiting until things happen,” he says.
“We’re having a movement of people that are moving towards a solution versus responding in the moment. For that, I’m excited.”
Vivian La is a student journalist for Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter @vivian_la_.