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On the Record With: Former Inmates Striving Together

For many newly released felons, finding shelter, transportation and support can be a challenge. Sometimes the label “criminal” prevents former inmates from establishing employment, housing and voting. This second class citizen status often leads to recidivism, or the cycle of falling back into old criminal behaviors, ultimately leading inmates back behind bars, according to experts.

On May 1 2009, repeat felon Joseph Schmidt Jr, Waukegan, founded Former Inmates Striving together,  known as FIST located on Genesee Street in downtown Waukegan and operating off of volunteers and donations, FIST helps former inmates find clothing, shelter, transportation and employment. For Schmidt, the opportunity to reenter society is not an entitlement; rather it must be earned. Former inmates must complete 40 hours of community service before entering FIST. Schmidt said his favorite part of his job is watching people find success and motivation through the program. For example, through FIST, a young woman received support and found employment.  Now, she is able to hold a steady job and pay rent for the apartment above FIST's thrift store.

What made you decide to create FIST and assist former inmates?

That story takes about 10 hours. I will give you the short version. I am an ex-criminal. I have 13 class-x drug felonies in my background, along with domestic violence, DUIs, disturbing the peace—the list goes on and on. The last time I was arrested was May 14, 2005 in Fox Lake with possession with intent to deliver – again, another class x felony. I woke up in this thing called the program pod in the Lake County jail.  It was the first day that Lake County jail had this in existence, so it was kind of a God incident – not a coincidence, but a God incident.  I had been smoking an ounce of crack every day for a year, so as this cocaine fog was leaving my brain, the message of responsibility, salvation and all that came in. So, I would say that FIST really started on that day. That was when I got the concept, initiative and desire to do this. The rest of the years I was in prison were all geared toward starting this organization when I got out of prison.

What was the process like from your awakening in the program pod to getting this organization off the ground?

The process was talking to people and observing what the needs were. You need a ride home when you get out of jail.  It is nothing against the county, but when you get out of jail in Lake County, you are put out the door. If you don’t have a ride home, that is your problem and you need to figure it out.  I watched people come and go...and the same people would come in and out back and forth. Part of the reason for that was because there were no support services for them when they got out. If you get released on a day like today and you were arrested in July, you don’t have a coat. You have the clothing you had on when you went into jail. When I got out of prison, I started a drive to collect coats for the jail. We collect coats, we donate them to the jail, and we keep several next door at our thrift store. A man or woman being released on a day like today can come over here and we will give them a jacket, shoes, pants and whatever they need so they can get home. Up until a few months ago, we provided transportation for these people. Unfortunately, with the economy, the cost of gas, lack of volunteers and vehicles, we cannot afford it anymore.  But, in the two years we provided rides home for the people in Lake County jail, we helped people get home to Florida, Washington, and Texas.

What other services does FIST provide for former inmates?

The biggest things we provide are family and hope. We are a support system, and we are not government funded. We get our donations from churches and from running the thrift store. We collect revenue wherever we can. There is no application to receive our support.  If you give us your information and show us you are willing to work for it, you can be a part of our organization. 

How does FIST fight recidivism and the feeling of being a second-class citizen?

We have a 12-step ex-offender meeting. It is based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is about motivation and hope. I use myself as an example. I am 60 years old, I have been in and out of prisons for most of my life. My juvenile record started when I was 12 years old. When I came out of prison, I became a registered voter. After that, I became a voter registrar, and later an election judge. In the latest cycle, I was a Republican candidate for the Lake County Board here in Waukegan. If I can do this at age 60, what can someone at age 30 accomplish? We work very hard to put away that victim crux. You are not a victim. You made a mistake, you need to move forward.  One of the biggest things I advocate is that I do not believe everyone deserves a second chance. I think people who are really dedicated to working for it deserve an opportunity at a second chance. There are many people that really belong in prison. There are many people who come out and feel entitled to something. You are not entitled to anything, because you need to work for what you get.

Can you explain what FIST plans to do in its expansion?

One of the things we are working on is establishing partnerships, especially in Waukegan and within the area.  Last summer, we received a contract to operate the beach front. We were able to put on a concert series. We would like to have more concerts this summer and we would like to find ways to get more people coming down to the beach front. It is a symbiotic relationship between the city and FIST.  We help the city of Waukegan bring more people into the area and to the beach front, which is a underutilized commodity in the area. It gives the organization the opportunity to shine, because people see us down at the beach working and they become familiar with our organization and what we do. We also have adopted the downtown area of Waukegan. We do all the cleanup of the streets, bus stops and things like that.  We have a great relationship with the Waukegan police station, Lake County jail, parole and probation. Even though I am an ex-offender who spent many years in prison, we still have been able to create these relationships. We also have relationships with some of the grassroots organization that are down in the streets trying to help the at-risk individuals turn their lives around and get on the right track.  So, in 2013, we hope to implement more job training programs. We hope to implement a greater opportunity for entrepreneurship.  We want to be a more self-sufficient organization. I just spoke with State Rep. Rita Mayfield the other day, and she is going to come on board at our next meeting as part of our board of directors. Gaining the support of the political, social and religious communities brings us all together and allows us to lead by example.

How else does FIST benefit the community?

We reduce recidivism. We ease the pressure on the legal system. We create a safer community. In the process of creating a safer community, we need less police officers to enforce the laws. One of the things [Waukegan] Mayor Sabonjian stressed four years ago was if we can get the ex-offenders involved and invested in the cities of Waukegan, Zion and North Chicago; they are less apt to commit a crime in the city where they live.There is another program going on through Waukegan Green Town, the old town organization. They are trying to force some of the negligent property owners to relinquish control of their property. This was another contract we had with the city.  We would go in and clean up the yards of negligent houses, turn them around, and then bill the bank or the negligent property owners. We helped beautify the neighborhoods in that way and created entrepreneurship for our members.  One of the things we are also doing is trying to get these property owners to relinquish control of their properties. In that case, the city will be able to take control of the buildings, and then the city will disperse the buildings through FIST, Youth Build and other organizations, which will go in and rehab the buildings. So, FIST can do one of two things. We can flip the house, make a profit and keep our doors open and our heat on for a little bit. Or, we can use it for more housing.  One of our problems is finding enough housing, especially for the sex-offenders.  They are getting regulated into such a small area that they can no longer find housing. The laws are becoming much more restrictive.  While we do not condone what they have done, we are trying to alleviate some of the fear mongering. We are not all degenerate, throw-away type people. When do you give up on people?  When they are 21, 22 years old? When they have committed their 100th crime? As long as they are willing to work for a second chance, we will work with them. This program is about giving second chances. 

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