Not Welcome Here

Let me tell you a little about what happens to an ex-offender just released from prison in “A Guide for the Perplexed,” now showing at Victory Gardens Theater. Better yet, you can experience the story first-hand by attending PCG’s theater event there next week.

While serving a four-year sentence, the protagonist, Doug, receives a body blow in the form of a letter: “Son, We are sorry you are in prison. Maybe it will help you. Although it makes us feel bad, you are not welcome here anymore. We wish you a good life, though. Mother.”

The “not welcome” sign is everywhere for ex-offenders in our society. Employers don’t want to take a chance hiring them; their access to public housing, food stamps and other public services is drastically limited. In all but 14 states they are not allowed to vote.

Friends and relatives may offer an initial welcome. But most families can bear the burden of an extra guest for only so long.

I remember Walter Boyd of our staff telling me of a friend from downstate who had never been to Chicago. On the day of his release, he was given $10 in pocket money, and a ticket for a bus that deposited him on Chicago’s west side the middle of the night. He wandered the streets in black slacks and a white shirt (prison issue for releases) looking for a shelter address he had been given but could not find.

Sometimes it is hard for ex-offender even to get through the first day of so-called freedom.

The U.S. has become a prisoner nation, with over one in every 31 men in our society connected to the criminal justice system. Of the 40,000 individuals released from prison each year in Illinois, over 50% will be locked up again within three years. Of all African-Americans in Chicago who do not finish high school, about 60% will be incarcerated by age 35.

Such information fuels PCG’s advocacy. We want to help change these realities.

Rarely do we take the time to step back and remember that behind every statistic is a real live person, with needs and hopes and fears.

“A Guide for ther Perplexed” shows us a person who feels the struggles that, indeed, are inside us all. Who hasn’t felt what Doug cries out at a crucial moment: “I can’t adjust; I can’t adapt; I can’t do any of the things one needs to do in order to be contented, to have things, to control one’s life and to be loved.”

The play does not impose policy recommendations, and it does not preach. But it does illuminate what we all have in common, both in our capacity to suffer and to help each other.

We hope you will join us at Victory Garden Theater next Thursday, July 15th at 6:30 p.m.

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