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PRISON ACTION COMMITTEE


PAC History & Mission Statement

In late 1991, Attorney James P. Chapman of Chicago met with six long term prisoners at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). Of the six prisoner, two were African-American, two were Latino, and two were White. They told Chapman that they were very concerned about the high rate of recidivism they observed among many prisoners who were released only to return shortly after commission of new offenses; that based on their long periods in prison, they had developed many ideas for programs for both the prisons and the communities that they believed would reduce this tragic process. The only problem: no one would listen to them. The prisoners then asked Chapman if he would help set up an organization in the "free world" that would be the "voice of the prisoner." This organization would be staffed exclusively by men and women who had been imprisoned in the IDOC, had demonstrated a positive attitude while in prison, and were dedicated , on release, to the creation of innovative programs that would combat those conditions in the prisons and the communities that contributed to the recidivism rate. Furthermore, the staff and the board would create alliances with those community organizations and individuals who shared their vision, drawing on their collective experiences and resources to create these programs. The organization's board would include several directors still in prison with whom staff would communicate for their input on policy and current prison conditions.

In March 1992, Richard Baker, respected by the founders, left prison after seventeen years to become the organization's first executive director. At an organizational meeting attended by several ex-offenders and families and loved ones of prisoners, the "Prison Action Committee" was born. From its modest beginnings in two small rooms in Chapman's downtown downtown law offices, PAC now has a fully equipped office on Chicago's south side, and a busy Learning Center on the near northwest side. The full time staff (now four) consists exclusively of ex-offenders, assisted part time by men and women on work release from the IDOC, on parole at transitional halfway houses, or on Earnfare "welfare to work" programs, and by former prisoners no longer in the system as well as families and fiends of persons still in prison. The board includes nine directors who are in prison.

PAC's most important accomplishment is fulfilling its founders mandate to be the "voice of the prisoner" in the Chicago area, and to begin to be a voice with other similar groups on a national basis, in matters relating to prison conditions, prisoner re-entry into the community , and solutions to recidivism. PAC's achievement in this respect is recognized by the larger number of organizations, institutions (including IDOC community correctional centers and individuals who have become partners with PAC in "attacking" the recidivism issue; PAC is now looked to for guidance on these issues by not only these groups, but by the media (newspapers, TV and radio). The scope of this recognition and involvement is reflected in PAC programs and activities.

The second significant achievement has been the establishment in of a major correspondence program with thousands of prisoners and their families. Through this program, PAC is able to detect and address systemic problems (like sexual abuse and harassment of women prisoners) and obtain from the prisoner correspondents the names and addresses of family and friends in the communities so that PAC can involve them in educational and advocacy programs related to prison-community issues. PAC has established a computer network in its office to aid the correspondence program ant to establish a sophisticated computer data base that contains the names, addresses, etc., of the prisoners and the families, the issues involved by prison, and so on. Through the computer data base we can correlate problems and communicate with newsletters and abut events with those in the base from the free world.

The third and most exciting accomplishment has been the establishment of the Community Re-Entry Program which represents a concrete approach to recidivism in partnership with community correctional centers and other vital community institutions. The Community Re-Entry Program, now a reality, should become a model for other communities to adopt, and with the support that PAC is developing in the communities, a basis to request that the IDOC and other prison systems adopt programs that complement the initiatives of the Community Re-Entry Program.

The Community Re-Entry Program has four basic components:

  1. A Mental Health Program
  2. A Specifically Designed GED Program
  3. Vocational Training
  4. Transitional Housing

Other accomplishments and ongoing programs in the last two years include after school intervention programs taught by ex-offenders at Chicago public grammar and high schools to provide a realistic view of prison life, crime, drugs and gangs, as a way to get youth out of gangs and away from crime and drugs. PAC works closely as a partner with other community youth groups like the Community Justice Initiative of the Southwest Youth Collaborative, Family and Children Justice Center of Northwestern Law School, and many others too numerous to list. In late 1997 PAC created the Illinois Institute for Community Law to be its educational and legal arm on prison-community issues. The Institute has become the paid contract consultant-supervisor to the U.S. Federal Court in Chicago for attorneys appointed to represent prisoners who bring conditions civil rights suits. Staffed by PAC Board President (volunteer) Chapman and an ex-offender, the Institute holds forums for attorneys and has just completed an extensive practice handbook for attorneys. The book is made available to prisoners to assist them in their own pro se litigations throughout the state. In early 1997, PAC in partnership with the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown created the Prison Telephone Project to study and eliminate the excess telephone charges to family members when prisoners call from IDOC prisons (a national problem). The Project works with hundreds of families of prisoners to develop pertinent data (along with FOIA requests, etc.) to publicize this issue in local media, to educate the public and state lawmakers, to procure lawyers for a Federal Court law suit that has been filed and to develop a campaign to cause change. In late 1997, in partnership with the Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW), PAC completed its three-year study, in conjunction with health care professionals, of the inadequate health care women in prison (also a national problem). That study culminated in the release of an extensive printed Executive Summary at a press conference in front of the IDOC's largest women prison and has resulted in significant improvements in the delivery of health to these prisoners. In 1998, CFW funded a continuation of this work with the ROWD Project (Restoration of Womanhood and Dignity Project), a three-year program to investigate sexual harassment of women in Illinois prisons and to provide counseling to women who have been sexually abused while in prison.

On August 3rd, 1999, PAC Executive Director Barbara Echols and staff member Gwendolyn Wadlington, attended the house judiciary committee hearing on Women In Prison issues. At this hearing PAC staff members shocked state representatives about the problems facing women and opened their eyes about the truth of women issues in prison. In fact, so impressive were the statements made by Barbara Echols, that one of the state representatives Cal Skinner offered to help PAC staff to gain access to any institution within the IDOC, a problem which had been ongoing with PAC members.

PAC's activities relate to the entire IDOC prison system and prisoners on work release or in transition and ex-offenders and their families in the Chicago Metropolitan area from which most prisoners come and to which they return. While PAC is a local organization, it has strong ties with national organizations such as C.U.R.E. of Washington D.C. and the Institute of World Spirituality at the Chicago Theological Seminary of the University of Chicago.