Chicago is a city of walls. Few of them are visible. They run along neighborhoods, dividing the city into white, black, Latino and the few multi-ethnic neighborhoods. The invisible walls are only visible to those who live within them. Were they built out of stones, respect would be written all over them – and money. And guns are the chosen weapon to earn both.
One of the few barbed wire and brick walls of the city surrounds the Cook County Department of Corrections. On any given day an average of 9,000 men are in jail here waiting for their trials. Next to the main entrance a sign says “Maximum security.” The first security check is outside the area where a dusty road leads to the buildings. The “L,” the city’s public transit train, stops conveniently close.
The next security check awaits visitors in the basement: name of inmate, relationship to the inmate, again an ID check. Waiting on cold, black stone benches, then through the metal detector, body check. A little girl, no older than 4, is sitting on one of the chairs. Like everybody else she has to remove her purple Puma sneakers. She has to turn them upside down and shake them. A razor blade might fit into one of them.
The visiting area for division 9 is located on the third floor. Eleven metallic stools are screwed in the floor in front of the security window; the dividing wall between each stool is thin. Everything is dark, gray. The girl with her purple sneakers and the blonde braids almost glows. She suffers from albinism. She can only see her father behind the security glass of booth number 11.
Steven sits in booth seven. 4XL is printed on the front of his beige prison shirt. Only tattoos give his pale face some outline. “Trust nobody” is inked above his right eyebrow; two black tears fall on his right cheek.
Steven is accused of armed robbery and attempted murder. He just turned 21. His brother Oscar, two years younger, is locked up, as well. Division 6. Since Steven got into fights they don’t see each other any more. Steven doesn’t share details on why he was transferred to division 9 – the highest security division. He only refers to it as “trouble.” When Steven talks, his index finger strokes the tattooed back of his left hand. The handcuffs ban more movement. Armed robbery and attempted murder. Maximum security.
Steven denies being involved in shooting anyone. Says it was just because of his brother. Oscar was involved and then they were going after him as well. “They” are those that live behind one of the invisible walls in Steven’s neighborhood. From another gang or another clique. What to believe? The stories along the borders have many sides, never just two. Steven is a member of the “Satan’s Disciples.” His cousin was shot and killed in 2009 at age 14. Maybe retaliation was on Oscar’s mind, maybe retaliation was on Steven’s mind. “If someone gets to you, you get back at them,” Steven said. “Always.” Respect, the family, building a name for oneself – on Chicago’s streets these are the reasons to hit back. And how to gain respect better than with a gun?
The jail time that possibly is Steven's future is long past for Maurice. He was sentenced to jail for attempted murder when he was 25 years old. His 50th birthday is coming up this November. When Maurice was young people used to bet on how old he might get before he was killed. No one ever bet that he’d make it this far. But Maurice gained himself respect. Raised by a single mother who gave birth to Maurice when she was 15, he was out on the street early in life.
“Our moms are our first heroes, because there are not a lot of dad’s around. But if kids lose respect for their moms because of abuse or drugs they don’t have any respect for life anymore,” Maurice said. A life on the street, with gangs and money – all that offers instant gratification for young male adults from poor neighborhoods.
At the age of 23, Maurice was well settled in the drug dealing business. One evening friends are throwing a party for Maurice when a leader of a “Gangster Disciples” chamber appears, hanging out in front of the house. “I went outside to talk to the guy and he hits me in the face,” Maurice remembers. No respect. Underneath his jacket Maurice has his finger at the trigger of his gun. He has to defend himself, gain respect. He shoots. To defend himself, he says.
But Maurice doesn’t shoot just once, he shoots several times. “The adrenaline, man, the adrenaline.” The gang leader survives. Maurice is sentenced to jail for ten years and serves four years and nine months, continuing the business behind the bars. Today Maurice says he has never been part of any gang as he doesn’t take orders. “You learn to adjust,” he says when asked about surviving on the streets. Surviving in Chicago as an individual with no gang affiliation seems like a miracle.
Maurice has been in the drug business all his life; he knows the invisible walls of his city well. Knowledge is power. As is a good network. Without a network there is no life on the streets. From time to time, Maurice still works as a broker for drug deals, as he describes it himself. A thousand dollars a month in government checks and food stamps for him, his wife and his son doesn’t last that long. For respect Maurice still owns a 9mm Smith & Wesson. Wrapped in a paper towel the gun fits in a brown grocery bag, together with a loaded magazine.
“I don’t look for trouble. I respect you first,” Maurice says. But if the respect is gone, everybody except babies and elderly people are fair game to him. “I grew up fighting. Before I went to school my mom used to tell me, ‘If you get beat, hit back.’”
Respect, hitting back. Steven says he didn’t do what the prosecutors are accusing him of since his arrest last October. But he grew up fighting, as well. “I know I am here because of the stuff I did when I was younger,” he says. He hopes to win his trial and go back to Minnesota where he had a job for a year fixing roofs.
Steven’s mother sits in her home at the corner of South Wood and 52nd St., not far from where the shooting occurred for which her two sons are incarcerated. Angelina denies any involvement of her sons in the shooting. She is their mother. Angelina is 39, and Steven is the oldest of her six children. She came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 10 years old and now shares a house with her twin sister. It was her sister’s son who was shot near a playground in 2009 when he was 14, playing with his cousin Oscar. A shrine placed right next to the door serves to remembers him – the “Angel.”
“My boys are good boys,” Angelina says. A $21,000 lawyer bill waits to be paid. What happens if the boys stay in prison? The 39-year-old doesn’t have an answer. There are too many problems, too little money. The kid’s father is no longer around – he doesn’t help. Angelina blames a lot on the gangs. “They want to make money with the kids but now they don’t show up in jail. They don’t give any money, nothing.”
Angelina does not know what really happened the night her sons got arrested. She talks about them being with her, or at least in her house, but she also talks about retaliation for her nephew. Too many problems, no way out. Her younger sons are not supposed to leave the house anymore after they come home from school. Her way of protecting them.
Violence, according to the epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin, is learned behavior. “When little children observe violence the brain begins to imitate it,” says Slutkin who founded Cure Violence, a violence interruption program. He promotes treating violence as an epidemic that can be prevented if stopped at the source. “There is no good and bad under a microscope,” says Slutkin, taking a scientific look at the problem and arguing that behavior can be changed.
Cure Violence tries to stop violence before it occurs, changing the behavior of those involved and ultimately shifting norms. Launched in Chicago in 2000, Cure Violence now is at work in 18 different communities worldwide. Essential to the concept is that the people who prevent the violence know the neighborhood and the culture. “You have to select people that are meaningful to the person so they can talk him or her out of it,” explains Slutkin. Cure Violence needs to know the invisible walls. Its teams stand between them.
As does Brother Jim. For 30 years “Brothers and Sisters of Love” has been working with street gangs in Chicago. Its mission is to serve as a bridge between gangs, the poor and the church and be a visible sign of peace on the street. Brother Jim walks the neighborhoods of Southside, wearing a habit out of jeans cloth. He joined founder Brother Bill 26 years ago and eventually took over the non-profit organization. “It was my calling.” Brother Jim doesn’t judge people, he forgives them, and prays with them if asked.
Being around Brother Jim one learns quickly that there is never such thing as a plan. There may be plans A to C and then one phone call can change everything to plan D. Brother Jim goes where he is needed. Comforting families who lost a son to a shooting, helping a young adult to finally get an ID, bringing conflicting cliques together or going to jail to visit Steven.
People trust him. Regardless of their gang affiliation. Maurice does, Steven does. Brother Jim talks with Steven about his fears, recommends readings in the Bible, and will be in court with him in June. And if Steven is sentenced Brother Jim will continue to visit him. He does not give up on people.
Pancake, 42, has known Brother Jim for years. He has been in prison multiple times, 20 years if he adds them all up. He has no job, no bank account, and he lives with his sister. He hustles to make some cash and helps people with their groceries, that kind of stuff. He was with the “Vice Lords” when he was younger. He still has a bond to the gang, although he’s no longer active.
“It’s a myth that you cannot quit a gang,” says Pancake. Still, he values his ties to the gang. With it comes knowing the right people, having a network. Pancake can flash the right gang signs on the sidewalk and it takes him less than two hours to find someone who would sell a gun for $150 – including some cash for Pancake for arranging the deal. It is that easy and that cheap if you just know the right people. And it is a reality for all of them, for Pancake, Maurice and Steven. They don’t share the same story nor the same reasons why their lives took the wrong turn. But they were all born in a city full of walls with little perspective to overcome them.